IF LATEST reports are correct, United Kingdom membership of the Indo-Pacific trade bloc CPTPP (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership) is on the brink of completion. The 11 existing members are Australia, Brunei, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam and Canada.
It was drearily predictable that diehard EU Rejoiners and Remainers would wail at this news, making childish points even by their standards, such as calling for a referendum on the UK’s CPTPP membership and claiming, without the slightest hint of self-awareness, that the UK was compromising its sovereignty! After all, this trade agreement demolishes one of their favourite arguments, that without EU membership no one would be interested in a trade deal with the United Kingdom apart from completely one-sided ones to the disadvantage of the United Kingdom. They will also be only too aware that CPTPP membership puts a serious obstacle in the way of the United Kingdom rejoining the European Union.
For their benefit, may I explain why CPTPP is different from EU membership for the UK, firstly dealing with the calls for a referendum on UK membership of the CPTPP.
The EU and the CPTPP are not the same thing. The EU is a political union. Its own propaganda, especially its constant calls for ever closer union, demonstrate that. The CPTPP is entirely a trade deal, nothing more, and the UK has already signed more than 40 such trade deals on a bilateral basis since leaving the EU. There were no calls for a referendum on any of those deals, so why would the CPTPP be any different?
The CPTPP has no plans to have its own currency such as the euro, has no plans to set up its own Parliament, form its own army, have embassies flying its flag across the globe, have a President and a Commission constantly seeking to take sovereign powers from its individual members, or demand freedom of movement across the national borders of its members, including entitlements for state benefits. Meanwhile the EU’s appetite for overreach shows no sign of easing off.
Next, another silly refrain: ‘It’s too far away!’ The existing members don’t seem to think so. A quick look at a map shows how massive the Pacific Ocean is. The countries around it are nowhere near each other. The UK is an average distance from other CPTPP members, just as most of the others are from each other. Check the distance from Canada to Australia, or Japan to Chile, if you are in any doubt. And of course, Canada and Mexico have borders which face towards the UK as well as towards the Pacific. Canada’s eastern border is nearer the UK than its western border is to Australia.
‘It won’t replace EU trade,’ EU supporters proclaim. The CPTPP is not intended to replace trade with the EU. The EU is still there, and the UK still has an advantage within the EU market compared to other 3rd countries due to its proximity – Michel Barnier said as much when working for the EU in negotiating the UK’s withdrawal from it some years back. The CPTPP is growing, whilst the EU’s share of world trade has been steadily diminishing for many years. So this would seem the perfect time for the UK to join the CPTPP since its future looks bright.
‘But the EU is bigger’ is another favourite refrain of EU rejoiners. In GDP terms the EU is currently bigger. However it is not bigger by population, nor by size. Further, once the UK is a member of the CPTPP, it will be close to the same size as the EU. There are six other countries in the queue to join the CPTPP, including South Korea, Thailand and the Philippines. Both China and Taiwan have talked about applying for membership, but any application has to be approved by all existing members, and Japan for one has come out firmly against Chinese membership.
Next, sovereignty. ‘Are you happy to follow laws made in Vietnam or Peru?’ EU rejoiners ask. This is another silly red herring as trade deals usually have no such correlation. The UK would no more be following laws set in Vietnam or Peru than the Vietnamese or Peruvians would be following laws set in the UK. Perhaps if the original Common Market had stuck to that, as we were promised by Edward Heath, Roy Jenkins and others in the 1975 Common Market Referendum, events regarding UK membership of it might well have taken a different turn.
Unlike the European Union, the CPTPP does not have an accession fee nor a swingeing annual membership fee. It is intended to stick to being a mutually beneficial trade agreement between its members, another example of how it is not the same thing as the EU, nor does it have any aspiration to become like the EU.
It does not demand access to UK fishing waters. CPTPP nations have no plans to plunder what’s left of our fishing stock from our waters. It does not have rules making it impossible for states to give aid to their industries or demand that government contracts have to be awarded to the most competitive tender, thus compelling the UK to order ships, trains and other spending contracts outside the UK (remember the fuss when the contract for new British passports was awarded to a French business) as was the case with the EU. Of course state contracts could still be awarded overseas, however at least the UK government would have the final say in that, which is as it should be.
I’m not claiming the CPTPP is a perfect fit – UK farmers certainly have their reservations – but it is not in any way a threat to British sovereignty in the same way as the EU was, packed with institutions such as the European Commission and the European Court of Justice intent on meddling in the internal affairs of its member states.
Ultimately it is businesses which trade with each other and with their customers, not governments (unless we are talking about government contracts). The role of Governments is merely to set the best economic and trading environment for that to take place. And as the cases of Canada and Japan show, it is perfectly possible to have a trade deal with the EU whilst being a CPTPP member. However it takes two to tango and so far the EU has refused to move on from treating the UK as a recalcitrant former colony.
This article appeared in Patrick Clarke’s Column on March 3, 2023, and is republished by kind permission.