A big business Brexit for a bargain basement Britain

Big business claims that it is being ignored in the Brexit process. But research released today suggests that this is far from true. In fact, while small business, trade unions and public interest groups may be marginalised, large corporations are getting plenty of access to government ministers. They’re determined to make sure that any type of Brexit becomes a big business Brexit.

The research, based on a disclosed list of government meetings between October 2016 and March 2017, shows that one in six ministerial meetings in David Davis’ Department for Exiting the EU over the last six months has been with business, the vast majority big corporations. In particular, the finance sector dominated those meetings, with 46 meetings being held with heavyweights including Goldman Sachs and HSBC.

The information we’ve received from the Department for International Trade is even worse – with one in nine meetings being held with business, most of it very big. Again, finance has done well – eight meetings with big bank HSBC, six with Barclays, and six with KPMG, as well as seven meetings with oil giant BP and five with big pharmaceutical corporation GlaxoSmithKline. This gives us some idea who Britain will be batting for post-Brexit – big finance, big energy, big pharmaceuticals.

Civil society only had five dedicated meetings with Liam Fox’s Department for International Trade – out of 318 meetings altogether. Worse still, some of these organisations are actually pro-business groups advocating ultra-free market policies including the Adam Smith Institute and the Legatum Institute. Legatum is an influential think-tank, funded by a Dubai-based private investment group, which advocates the unilateral removal of agricultural tariffs and quotas, a move which would destroy small farmers in the UK.

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There couldn’t be a greater contrast between the role big business has been given and the power of Britain’s elected representatives. The government only gave parliament the right to trigger Brexit talks after being forced to do so by the courts. MPs have virtually no power over trade deals – they can’t scrutinise, amend or stop such deals. As things stand, disputes in the Wallonian region of Belgium will have more power over a final EU-UK trade deal than British MPs.

What is being discussed in the ministerial meetings? We’re not allowed to know, but next week, the government will introduce the Great Repeal Bill into parliament – a gigantic piece of legislation which aims to translate all current EU law into British law. This will entail much more than just changing the acronym EU to UK. It means leaving many institutions which allow for enforcement and keep them up-to-date. The Repeal Bill will also give the government extraordinary powers – named Henry VIII powers after our notorious renaissance monarch best known for beheading his wives – to make important decisions. Big business surely has something to say on this potential to shred various pieces of social and environmental regulation.

It’s true that some big business was opposed to leaving the EU and wants to remain in the single market. If your business is based on a European market, any changes to UK regulation will threaten the ease with which goods can be sold into Europe. Some financial institutions will want so-called “passporting right” so they can continue to operate across the EU border.

But for many other businesses, the potential to cut regulation outside of the EU will undoubtedly appeal. In fact, financial institutions might want to divide up their operations, allowing a non-EU entity the ability to trade toxic financial instruments not allowed in the EU. Allowing American low-standard food into the UK – chickens washed in chlorine, beef pumped with hormones, GM wheat – might be disastrous for British farmers, but big food businesses will see the possibility it provides to make cheaper, worse-quality food.

The British government has repeatedly refused to give the public a “running commentary” on its position in the Brexit negotiations. But big business is clearly being given more information, access and opportunities for influence than the rest of us. Unless we can prize open this process, a big business Brexit risks turning us into bargain basement Britain.

Nick Dearden is the director of UK campaigning organisation Global Justice Now. He was previously the director of Jubilee Debt Campaign.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.