Last week, the European Parliament passed a landmark piece of legislation ensuring proper and effective regulation of minerals imported into the EU.
It aims to break the real and demonstrable link between the increasing demand for these precious materials — used in a wide range of everyday electronic products — and the financing of armed conflict around the world.
In places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, armed groups and corrupt regimes are profiting from the mining of minerals, destabilising already-weak states and dangerously hindering the prospects for peace and sustainable development.
After months of internal tussling between MEPs and national governments, a deal was eventually reached providing mandatory due diligence requirements for all smelters, refiners and importers of these minerals, based on OECD guidelines. The European Commission had initially proposed a voluntary scheme, but Labour MEPs and our social democrat colleagues from across Europe dug in our heels in the face of the business lobbies to ensure this more progressive conclusion.
The four main minerals concerned — tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold ore — are essential elements of many modern electrical gadgets. Thanks to this new law, British consumers will know that when they are buying their latest smart phones they are not fuelling wars abroad.
Many in the West complain about the negative consequences of globalisation, particularly on traditional manufacturing jobs. This was a crucial factor in both Brexit and Donald Trump’s success in the US presidential elections. These concerns are real and the centre-left must deal with them if we are going to lose people to the seductive siren calls of protectionism.
However, in other parts of the world, the problems caused by unregulated international capitalism are much graver, as we saw in the Rana Plaza tragedy in Bangladesh. International trade has proven to be a key driver of development across the world, but if it is not properly regulated it can be exploited by unscrupulous groups and ordinary citizens will suffer.
The tough new conflict minerals regulation builds upon other EU legislation designed to protect ordinary citizens. One example is the anti-torture goods regulation, which places strict export controls on goods that could be used for torture. Another is the regulation on ‘dual-use’ goods — items that have one intended purpose but could possibly be used by nefarious regimes for military purposes, like nuclear technology.
In these areas and many more, the EU is taking a leading international role. The current UK government needs to realise that trade policy is not just about striking free trade agreements, but also promoting and enforcing responsible and fair trading practices.
My worry is that in its rush to promote Britain as a global free-trading nation these important issues will be sidelined.
The risk is made even greater by the fact that it wants, no, needs, quick trade deals in order to replace the fifty or so countries with whom we currently enjoy privileged access by virtue of our EU membership. In my experience, negotiating good and equitable agreements takes time. Furthermore, as we have seen with the conflict minerals case, trade deals must also be complemented by a strong and sustainable trade policy more generally.
My work on trade policy in the European Parliament has been just as much about creating fair global rules as it has been about bringing down barriers to trade. One has to go hand in hand with the other.
he conflict minerals regulation is a perfect example of how governments can use trade policy to improve the lives of ordinary citizens, both at home and abroad.
Liam Fox and his new Department for International Trade would do well to look at the EU’s achievements and learn from them.