Sunday, 23 June 2013

Cameron’s free-trade dream is destined to end in failure

The PM's proposal echoes Tony Blair's empty words on ending poverty in Africa

Smoke and mirrors: G8 leaders (l-r): President Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister David Cameron, President Barack Obama and President Francois Hollande
Smoke and mirrors: G8 leaders (l-r): President Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister David Cameron, President Barack Obama and President Francois Hollande Photo: AFP
Ever since Tony Blair used Britain’s last G8 presidency in 2005 to proclaim his intention to abolish poverty in Africa and halt climate change, we have known that these gatherings are largely a matter of smoke and mirrors – just as we saw from the way last week’s charade in Northern Ireland was exploited to the hilt by that “heir to Blair”, David Cameron. This was nowhere more obvious than in the impression he tried to convey that he was taking the lead in proposing a historic “free-trade deal” between the USA and the EU. But all this called for some rather severe correctives.
For a start, China and India might have had something to say about the BBC’s claim that this was a meeting of “the eight most powerful countries in the world”. Then it was not so much a “G8” as a “G8 plus Two”, as we saw from the prominent presence, alongside President Obama and the rest, of those two spectres at the feast, Presidents JosĂ© Manuel Barroso and Herman Van Rompuy of the EU.
Third, and rather more significantly, Mr Cameron, as Prime Minister of the UK, has no direct status in this deal at all, since trade is an exclusively EU competence. The negotiations are to be conducted by Mr Barroso and the European Commission, not by any mere member state.
Fourth, what is being proposed is not just an EU-US deal but something much wider: between on one side, not just the EU but also the European Free Trade Area (Efta), including Norway and, on the other, not just the US but also Canada and Mexico, as members of the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta).
Fifth, what is being proposed is not so much a “free-trade area” as a deal allowing trade between the two groups of countries subject to the harmonising of tens of thousands of regulations. This will require years of negotiations, which will be so complex and intractable that a deal may never come off at all.
It is hard to conceive, for instance, that any agreement could be reached between the powerful and highly protectionist farming lobbies on both sides. US agribusiness would find it impossible to accede to the EU’s strict animal welfare rules. The EU, so suspicious of GM, will scarcely welcome a flood of meat and cereal products made much cheaper by America’s wholesale embrace of genetic modification.
As bitter rivals in the world airline market, the US and European aviation industries have long been embattled over their rival state-subsidy schemes, each side claiming the other’s to be illegal. EU manufacturers will not be enthused by an influx of all those manufactured goods made competitive by much lower US energy costs, thanks to shale gas. The list of issues on which negotiations could founder goes on and on.
So the question that arises is why did all those politicians last week seem so happy to see this deal given such a high profile? Mr Obama favours it because analysis shows that the US would benefit much more from such a deal than the EU. The EU’s leaders like it because it offers diversion from the disaster being inflicted on Europe’s economies by the slow-motion train wreck of the euro. As for Mr Cameron, he hopes that his grandstanding on the deal will help him to spike Ukip’s guns by insisting that we can only benefit from such an arrangement if we remain in the EU.
But here, as so often when he talks about Britain’s membership of the EU, he is being disingenuous. He carefully obscures the fact that Britain could benefit just as much from a deal by leaving the EU and rejoining the Efta. In his desperation to keep us in the EU, he still relies on that threefold wishful thinking by which he hopes to: a) win the next election; b) promise Eurosceptics that he can then negotiate a new treaty between Britain and the EU within two years; c) put this to a referendum in 2017.
Of these, a) is highly dubious; b) is out of the question – negotiating a new treaty would, under the rules, take much longer than two years; and since c) is dependent on b), this isn’t going to happen either.
Mr Cameron’s dreams can no more come true than did Mr Blair’s dreams that he could abolish poverty in Africa.
Two victories for fairness
Two former themes of this column again made news last week. On September 25 2011, in a piece headlined “How bailiffs reap rewards of their 'phantom visits’ ”, I exposed the scandal whereby both councils and the police were condoning the fraud being practised by private bailiffs hired by town halls to chase defaulters on council tax, such as those “phantom visits” whereby they fake court documents and demand exorbitant fees just for posting threatening messages through letter boxes. Although in 2007, this was identified in Parliament as a crime under the 2006 Fraud Act – as was confirmed to me in 2011 by West Yorkshire Police (despite its refusal to take action to stop it) – the relevant authorities have continued to turn a blind eye to a racket estimated to be illegally robbing its victims of £300  million a year. But last week, Eric Pickles, our local-government minister, issued strict new guidelines making it clear to councils and the police that these “phantom visits” and other breaches of the law can no longer be tolerated.
Meanwhile, in the Supreme Court, Sue Smith won her action against the Ministry of Defence for sending her son, Phillip Hewitt, to his death in a Snatch Land Rover blown up by an Iraqi roadside bomb in 2005. Without my generous readers who, at a crucial moment in 2008, sent her £7,000, this action, brought by Mrs Smith and two other bereaved families, could not have gone ahead. Their purpose, now vindicated by the highest court in the land, was simply to put the MoD under a legal “duty of care” not to risk soldiers’ lives by sending them into action in vehicles ill-equipped to withstand the very dangers to which they are likely to be exposed. This is an important victory and Mrs Smith again passes on her gratitude to our readers for their part in it.
Met Office admits it hasn’t a clue
If its implications were not so serious, it might have seemed hilarious that the Met Office’s scentists last week staged a conference to discuss why, in recent years, Britain’s weather has apparently gone off the rails. What they meant, without admitting it, was: why have they got their forecasts so spectacularly wrong in 12 years out of the past 13? Why in 2009 did they predict a “barbecue summer” when the summer was a washout? Why, in 2010, did they predict a “milder-than-average winter” just before we had one of the coldest-ever Decembers? Why in 2012 did they forecast a “drier-than-average” spring and early summer just before we enjoyed one of the wettest summers on record?
The explanation, of course, is that the Met Office’s experts have been so obsessed with global warming that their computers were programmed to predict “hotter, drier summers” and “warmer, wetter winters” for decades to come. Tellingly, they last week went out of their way to discount man-made global warming as the cause of all this “climate disruption”, ascribing it instead to various natural factors, from changes in solar radiation to shifts in ocean currents: in other words, precisely the arguments less blinkered scientists have been urging in vain for years. The significance of this retreat from their former mindset is that the influence of our Met Office in driving the man-made warming scare has been second to none, not least through the prestige it has enjoyed with the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change ever since it was launched in 1988 under the Met Office’s then-director, Dr John Houghton,
Only two clear messages emerged from last week’s conference. The first was that the Met Office experts seem, at last, to be admitting that they really have no idea what is driving the changes in our weather. The other was their call for more research funding to help them to find out.
But as the Met Office and its much-vaunted “super-computer” is already costing us £200 million a year, I suppose that it is good to see them conceding that, so far, we haven’t really had much value for our money