PER some news reports, Britain is about to join the CPTPP (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership). That’s a huge step forward for both free trade and geopolitics, especially because the CPTPP excludes China and Russia and therefore clears the path for other countries who also want to free themselves from relying on the Chinese and Russian economies to trade with each other more closely and freeze out dictators.
For some time, the West has seemed ill-equipped to deal with Presidents Putin and Xi who have appeared emboldened in recent years. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has wreaked untold havoc and caused immeasurable harm in the first land war Europe has seen since the 1940s. Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist Party disregards even the most basic human rights considerations with impunity, imposing harsh authoritarian rule on Hong Kong, committing genocide against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang and issuing aggressive threats to Taiwan with a worrying regularity.
So far, Britain’s responses to the actions of the Kremlin and the CCP have been lacklustre to say the least, especially when it comes to China. The most we could muster in response to Beijing’s violent censorship of protesters and the free press in Hong Kong, for example, was a limited opportunity for some Hong Kong nationals to apply for visas in the UK. That was good, but in the grand scheme of things, Britain should be thinking much bigger about how to counteract China’s enormous influence and power.
Meanwhile, when Putin invaded Ukraine, although we did ourselves proud with the amount of military and humanitarian support we provided, we had to humiliate ourselves scrambling (along with the rest of Europe) to diversify our energy sources before the winter hit thanks to our sudden inability to access Russian gas, amid fears of blackouts. More broadly, strengthening political ties with key allies seems to be on the prime minister’s mind, given his recent trip stateside to solidify a new nuclear Aukus deal. Joining the CPTPP helps all of this.
There will also be countless economic benefits for Britain from joining the CPTPP, such as through the wipe-out of palm oil tariffs from Malaysia, which the government has reportedly agreed to do upon joining the trade pact. While the British government is joining the CPTPP and forging closer dialogue with Malaysia (who are big exporters of palm oil) resulting in abolishing tariffs, our European neighbours erect new barriers to imports. That is the stark difference between a pro-free trade Global Britain and the mercantilist, short-termist European Union.
To justify their legislative crackdown and de facto ban on palm oil imports, the EU squawks about protecting the planet and stopping deforestation, but even a cursory look at the evidence shows that those fears are unfounded. When companies boycott palm oil, which Brussels seems to be clamouring for, they have to switch to another product to replace it, all of which cause more deforestation, not less. Suspiciously, those other products (including sunflower oil and rapeseed oil) are often manufactured in Europe. Is the EU freezing out palm oil imports for protectionist reasons?
If the EU really did just want to protect the planet, it would work with the palm oil industry, which is itself becoming even more sustainable. Sime Darby Plantation, the world’s largest producer of certified sustainable palm oil which recently earned itself a clean bill of health from US customs authorities, is even going net-zero on emissions by 2050. The company is also about to reforest a huge 400 hectare area of land, and it has already set aside over 40,000 hectares for similar programmes. To date, it has planted more than 1.9 million trees.
In that light, the EU’s mercantilist stance looks especially flawed. Why crack down on palm oil imports when that’s likely to fuel deforestation even faster? And that’s not to mention the economic costs, with consumers facing higher prices on the shelves simply because manufacturers suddenly need to pay for more land to be used up to produce all those less efficient alternative oils.
As is so often the case, regulators and state actors like the EU sticking their noses where they do not belong ends up making the situation a lot worse. But while the EU is doing that, Britain is able to join the CPTPP. That means we escape the EU’s harmful new rules, but it also means we can actively make the situation better by scrapping tariffs on palm oil imports and therefore removing a big state barrier to free enterprise. Free trade the free market win out again.
Jason Reed is a writer and broadcaster on politics and policy for a wide range of outlets.