Trade is one of the cornerstones of the 21st-century economy. This is commonly known as an era of “free trade”. However, this concept can be misleading, as the negotiation of trade deals between nations and regions remain a crucial part of contemporary economics and politics. In light of the financial crisis and the growing challenge to current globalisation, such negotiation will likely only become more important in the future.
What precisely do trade agreements do? This would appear to be a relatively straightforward question. However, they can and often are quite complex with many component parts and functions. They can also encompass a wide range of priorities and objectives. Andrew Walker provides an introductory primer of modern trade agreements in his BBC article “What do trade agreements do?”
In the immediate context, the efforts to reverse globalisation have caused a renewed emphasis on renegotiating trade deals. Specifically, this is associated with often competing desires to reduce immigration, enhance labour rights, lessened regulation for business and increased environmental protection. These issues have come to the forefront in light of Brexit where the UK’s decision to leave the EU has meant that it now has to independently negotiate new trade agreements. Christopher Grey discusses this in his article for The Conversation “How would post-Brexit trade deals actually work?”
There are also larger questions about current free trade agreements. In particular, many object to their benefiting of corporations and political elites. It reflects a broader global “race to the bottom” where countries compete with each other for business investment through reducing their social welfare, taxes and labour as well as environmental regulations. The TTIP – the proposed agreement between the US and EU - epitomised these trends. Gabriel Siles-Brügge highlights these issues in his article for The Conversation “Make no mistake, the TTIP is a move in the wrong direction”.
A key concern is that trade agreements may be depicted as “free” but are rarely transparent. They are often made away from the public eye by political and economic elites. Further, their conditions are negotiated without democratic scrutiny or accountability. Just as worrying, these deals are reached by unelected figures, further putting into question their ability to be publicly debated and influenced. Alvaro Guzman Bastida discusses these concerns in his article for Al Jazeera America “History’s largest trade agreements are being negotiated in secret”.