USTR Report Must Stop Listing Countries’ Consumer, Health, Environmental Policies as Illegal Trade Barriers

Biden Must Break From Tradition of Soliciting Corporate Attacks on Other Countries’ Public Interest Policies and Elevating Them to Be U.S. Policy

For Immediate Release: March 31, 2021
Contact: Matthew Groch (202) 454-5111, mgroch@citizen.org

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today’s annual National Trade Estimate (NTE) report continues the shameful tradition of labeling other countries’ legitimate public interest policies related to public health, the environment, food and privacy as “trade barriers.”

The report is a statutorily required review of trade partners’ “significant trade barriers” that the U.S. government wants countries to eliminate. Among the policies in the report’s crosshairs are:

  • The EU’s objective of reducing farmers’ pesticide, fertilizer and livestock-related antimicrobial use to meet its goal of making Europe “the first carbon neutral continent by 2050.”
  • Safety certifications for tires imported into Costa Rica.
  • The European chemical safety system.
  • Mexico’s decision to phase out controversial herbicide glyphosate and glyphosate-containing products like Roundup and various European countries phase outs.
  • Regulations on genetically engineered food in numerous countries from Kenya to Pakistan to the EU and its member states.
  • Policies adopted by New Zealand, Argentina and Hungary to deal with the economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Data localization requirements in Brazil, Ecuador, India, Indonesia, Israel, Kenya, Korea, Pakistan and Turkey, among many other countries, and local content requirements for online streaming services in Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Mexico, Ukraine, and Vietnam labelled as “barriers to digital trade.”
  • Determinations made by Australia and Morocco to halt U.S. exports of certain agricultural products due to risks of dispersion of animal or plant diseases.

Public Citizen submitted comments for this report in October 2020 when many corporations sent in lists of domestic policies they wanted listed. We argued that it is against the public interest for USTR to spend resources compiling a corporate hit list of such measures and for USTR to effectively arm commercial interests to attack similar policies domestically by labeling such measures categorically as trade barriers.

“Whatever policies in other countries that U.S. commercial interests may find not to their liking, U.S. government officials should not be in the business of elevating special interest peeves into U.S. policy,” said Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch. “The U.S. national interest is served by countries enforcing strong environmental public health and other public interest standards.”

However, there are reasons to be hopeful this year’s report will be the last NTE that targets access to medicines, food safety, and digital trade policies as trade barriers.

President Joe Biden’s Mar. 1 trade agenda describes a new approach at odds with the corporate agenda outlined in the NTE report. Biden promised Americans “trade policies that address the climate crisis, bolster sustainable renewable energy supply chains,” and critically in the context of the report, that “discourage regulatory arbitrage.”

Most of today’s NTE report, which is prepared by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), was written before the new USTR Katherine Tai was even confirmed by the Senate.  At her Senate confirmation hearing, USTR Tai explained, “a lot has changed in the world in the past five or six years, and a lot has changed in terms of our own awareness of some of the pitfalls of the trade policies that we’ve pursued as we’ve pursued them over the most recent years.”

These sentiments are shared in Congress as well. For example, U.S. House of Representatives Ways and Means Trade Subcommittee Chair Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore) during a June 17, 2020 hearing described how a U.S.-U.K. free trade agreement could lock in lax U.S. food safety standards – on massive agribusiness subsidies, pesticides, slaughterhouses, chlorinated chicken and more – and export these to the U.K. He commented, “I hope that our negotiators can focus on tearing down protections and barriers to trade, like quotas and price control measures, and spend less political capital on areas where our countries may have reasonable policy differences.”

The practice of targeting and condemning public interest policies undertaken by other nations through these reports has been pervasive in both Republican and Democratic administrations as has the failure to consider the conflicts with U.S. domestic policy initiatives that can be created by a U.S. government agency taking up a list of policies U.S. commercial interests want to attack in other countries and socializing those private attacks in a U.S. government report. Attacks on legitimate policies adopted by other countries by labeling them as “trade” violations also fuels the growing global backlash against the current globalization and trade regime.

Going forward, this review should be limited to actual trade policies, such as tariffs, quotas, or import licensing schemes, and refrain from demonizing environmental, public health, and other legitimate public interest policies as “significant trade barriers,” especially those that treat domestic and foreign goods, firms and services alike.

 

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