Here in the North East we know only too well about the importance of trade. We’re a small but perfectly formed region built on what we can produce and share.
History tells our story best of all. In the 13th century Newcastle was the leading English exporter for leather. Livestock from Northumberland provided the hides and all was going well until conflict with Scotland opened up, damaged the whole of the border lands and with it destroyed our trade. In the 14th century the first shipyard opened in Sunderland whose exports for centuries would reach every shore. Our coal fuelled the industrial revolution. In the 18th century the ironworks in Bedlington produced the metal for railways around the world as well as for the historic Stockton and Darlington first steam powered railway.
Fast forward to the 21st century we come the full circle with Hitachi’s train manufacturing plant not only providing the Intercity Express Programme carriages but competing for contracts across Europe from their new manufacturing centre in Newton Aycliffe. The Northern TUC was proud to campaign with Phil, the council, employers and the community to bring rail manufacturing to its rightful home.
Ours is an outward looking region and one that appreciates the importance of trade and exports. Part from instinct, part from necessity. According to the Centre for Economics and Business Research 156,000 jobs in the North East are associated with EU trade. This week we have Nissan committing to building on Wearside the new Infiniti model meaning 280 additional jobs. That would not happen if we were outside of the EU. For the region with the highest unemployment we can’t afford to jeopardise a single one of these and many (though arguably not enough) know the importance of the European Union to our region. But this is only half of our region’s story.
Poet Lord Alfred Tennyson wrote that ‘dark and true and tender is the North’. We don’t just chase coins with no concern for others. A sense of social justice runs through our region’s veins. We will demonstrate for what’s right from the march from Jarrow to highlight the social plight of mass unemployment in the 1930s to last year’s People’s march for the NHS organised by Darlington mums from Jarrow to London in protest at the growing privatisation of the NHS. The North East is home to the grave of the only suffragette, Emily Wilding Davison to be killed during the struggle for votes for women rests at her family plot in Morpeth. The Durham Miners’ Gala is the largest celebration of working class heritage in the country and trade union density here is the highest of any region in England with 309,000 members at the latest count.
People here are pro-trade but fiercely fair. How we blend economic ambition with social concern is the challenge for the North East but increasingly a challenge for TTIP negotiators too. The TUC and unions across Europe have made clear that trade deals should not lower the levels of protection we have secured in the EU. It should be about removing genuine trade barriers not screwing down terms and conditions. It should be about real trade and not threatening parts of the public sector including education and health especially those that have been opening up to privatisation under the current government and will need to be reversed.
From a trade union perspective there remains a lack of transparency and certainty about what has been promised and by whom, as is often the way with trade deals. It is no wonder that unions across Europe will look at other trade deals and examine the consequences when things go badly wrong. TTIP currently contains a provision which would allow EU and US multinationals to use to sue governments in special international courts if they feel their profits are threatened. This is the Investor-State Dispute Settlement or ‘ISDS’. Egypt has been sued by the French firm Veolia under ISDS for increasing its minimum wages. The Canadian government has been sued through ISDS by the American company Eli Lilly for failing to grant the pharmaceutical company a drug patent. And Slovakia has been sued through ISDS under its bilateral trade deal with the Netherlands when it renationalised its health service. It had to pay $22 billion dollars in compensation to the Dutch insurance company Achmea. These fears are real and legitimate.
In light of this, we should pay particular credit to Jude Kirton-Darling for the role she’s played in ensuring concerns of citizens are being represented at a European stage and solutions can be sought. This week the Socialist and Democrat group in the European Parliament have said that they reject ISDS tribunals in TTIP and the EU-Canada agreement. These MEPs have also raised the importance of securing labour standards in TTIP. This is the way for TTIP to succeed.
There’s a much wider political dimension for others to appreciate. It’s not just Greece, but people across Europe and in the North East feel short-changed and bruised by governments that are making them disproportionately pay for a global financial crisis they did not cause. Trust in national institutions is low, never mind those at a European level. That’s why it’s so important that concerns those representing 6 million workers in the UK and 60 million across Europe are acknowledged and addressed. They’re not just workers and union members - they’re citizens and voters.
In November in the Conservative-Labour marginal constituency of Stockton South voters were asked about TTIP. 63% opposed the inclusion of the NHS in this trade agreement, only 18% support its inclusion and 20% don’t know. 51% think Mr Cameron should veto TTIP outright if he fails to get a guaranteed explicit opt-out for the NHS with 17% think he shouldn’t veto it and 31% don’t know.
In the next parliament it is probable there will be a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union either through David Cameron’s 2017 timetable if the Conservatives are returned or if there’s major treaty change under a Labour-led government. The national polls currently suggest we’re narrowly winning the case for staying in, but only just. What will put all that at risk is if people increasingly associate the Europe Union with decreasing living standards.
We’ve already seen this with debate about immigration which has powered the rise of one fringe party to the mainstream. If the price of EU membership included a perceived likely loss of wages and public services such as the NHS through trade deals then more mainstream voters will choose to leave the EU. We need a balanced Europe committed to peace, prosperity and fairness for citizens.
We want more jobs, greater prosperity and for the North East and to export our success. Businesses in this region already compete and win contracts throughout the world and we want more. You only have to look at Nifco and the £50 million Ford contract they won beating off competition from Germany, Japan and China. Whether it’s the engineering, chemical or design sectors or any of the industries that have gone before and helped made Britain Great, few of this region’s economic achievements can be explained without trade.
If the reports of projected economic gain from TTIP genuinely stack up and public services aren’t on the menu and living standards can increase then of course people here will be interested. If hard-fought standards and rights at work such as the minimum wage aren’t at risk from private tribunals then working people are much likely to be positive.
We want to compete on our passion, ingenuity, craft and creativity. Any trade deal that involves auctioning public services or cutting conditions at work will kill support and have dire implications for our membership of the European Union and as a consequence for this region. In an era of insecurity, public support cannot be assumed and trust must be earned. The stakes are high. That is why the precise nature of TTIP negotiations really matters and that meetings like this are so important to bring light to some of the important issues involved.
The North East must continue to take equal pride in our social and economic achievements - for we prosper when they go hand in hand. An outward looking vision that looks well beyond this region. Whether it’s with Scotland, across Europe or across the Atlantic we should be aspiring to free and fair competition. Let’s focus on trading goods not valued public services or workplace rights.