In recent months, I have received thousands of emails on the issue of trade deals and the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) between the EU and Canada in particular.
I was always sceptical that the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) would be ratified, now it is clear that it will go no further. However, I did think that we had a responsibility to participate in and scrutinise proposals as the negotiations developed. Labour MEPs were very clear about the red lines that would not be crossed and the importance of reserving the right to reject the final deal if our concerns were not dealt with.
The European Parliament has voted on the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement between the EU and Canada. I voted against CETA; many of my concerns had not been addressed, not least the continued inclusion of a tribunal system, Investor Court System (ICS), to resolve disputes between private investors and governments. I have long thought that such mechanisms are unnecessary as I believe there are mature legal system on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition, this court mechanism is not available to companies that are domestically based.
However, the decision was not straightforward and some of my colleagues came to different conclusions. We are a trading nation and I believe in the value of trade. Done properly, trade deals can lift people in developing countries out of poverty, enhance quality of life through increased spending and investment, create jobs, improve cultural understanding, reduce animosity and cut costs for consumers. On the other hand, done badly, trade can manipulate the weaker side, exploit producers and lead to lower standards.
As well as my concerns about investor dispute settlement arrangements, CETA is the first EU agreement negotiated according to a negative list for services. Everything not explicitly excluded is deemed to be included (as opposed to a positive list, where only the committed services need to be mentioned and everything else is excluded). This is a delicate method, one that has long been opposed by European social democrats because it is extremely risky: if public services are not all excluded in an absolutely watertight way, then all sorts of unintended consequences can ensue - including not being able to renationalise specific services that may have been privatised.
There is a broad exemption for public services in CETA but it is subject to specific national reservations. The UK Tory government has left thin wedges on the table, such as ambulances, private hospitals and care homes. Other EU member states are better protected. For example, free trade supporting countries, like the Finnish, German or Czech governments, all have broad exemptions that cover all public and private health, social services and education.
As negotiations start on Britain leaving the EU the existing trade deals take on a new significance. Firstly, it is vital that the UK continues having the closest possible relationship with the EU but is seems Theresa May is determined to limit this relationship to one of a free trade deal. Secondly, it is also important for any future deals between the UK and other countries that there are limitations on the terms of those deals.
In Parliament, it was clear that the extreme wings - on the left and on the right - were against the deal. UKIP's group sat with #stopCETA signs. As a general rule, if Farage is against something it is, more often than not, worth approving. I don't believe the answers to the problems we face belong on the extreme wings of our politics. However, I voted against the deal as I believe that the risks that would be posed by CETA are not in my view outweighed by benefits that could increase jobs, growth and rising standards.