30 July, 2021

To what lengths is the UK going to shroud in secrecy its post-Brexit free trade negotiations? It is a commonplace of observation on negotiations that secrecy is one of their unavoidable ingredients: keeping secret from the other side particularly your fall-back position, and keeping secret from everyone else what’s going on in the talks for fear that some vested interest will sabotage them if it doesn’t like what it sees. But it’s still jaw-dropping to learn from articles by Graham Lanktree published in Politico Europe, first in December 2020 and most recently in July 2012, about the lengths to which the English nationalist government of the ‘UK’ has gone to prevent leaks from its trade talks with Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and the USA, agreements with the first two having recently been agreed in principle.  These are the free trade negotiations through which post-Brexit ‘Global Britain’ is supposed to breeze to the sunlit uplands of the prosperity so mysteriously denied it by membership of the European Union.

The UK clearly holds a weak hand in these negotiations because its market is much smaller than the EU’s and the whole world knows how desperate it is to demonstrate the success of Brexit. In order to see leaks enfeeble it no further, the UK’s International Trade Department has taken the extraordinary step of requiring the signature of seven-year Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) by organizations wishing to join any of the advisory groups established to support individual sets of talks. Furthermore, despite the fact that hundreds of business groups felt obliged to sign these agreements (trade unions and NGOs refused), they are denied the degree of access they had been promised – especially sight of draft negotiating texts – although a favoured few have had fuller access via informal routes. As for parliamentary oversight of these negotiations, this, of course, is virtually non-existent. This is further evidence of what that winning slogan in the Brexit referendum, ‘take back control’, really means.