Catholic organizations have joined labor unions and environmental advocates in an effort to shape the early negotiations of a major new trade deal between the United Kingdom and the United States.

In a letter sent May 4 to the UK Secretary of State for International Trade and the U.S. Trade Representative, sixty-nine organizations, including three Catholic advocacy groups — Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, the Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach, and NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice — called for a transparent, democratic negotiation process based on “ambitious environmental and social aims.”

The U.S.-U.K. trade deal is an opportunity to acknowledge the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor and to create a new way of living and interacting, with stronger climate and labor standards, and protection of safeguards for consumer health and safety,” Susan Gunn, director of Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, told Crux.

“We are concerned the U.S.-UK trade deal could privilege corporate profits at the expense of people and the planet, especially poor, marginalized communities,” she added. “A trade deal between two of the most powerful nations in the North would create rules that both countries could use in negotiations with countries in the Global South. We need to get the rules right.”

In this Monday, Sept. 30, 2019 file photo, Liz Truss, Britain’s International Trade Secretary at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, England. After a delay caused by the coronavirus pandemic, British and American negotiators have opened negotiations, remotely, on a trade agreement that the U.K. government hopes will bring a post-Brexit economic and diplomatic boost. U.K. International Trade Secretary Liz Truss and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer held a video conference call on Tuesday May 5, 2020 at the start of two weeks of negotiations. (Credit: Frank Augstein/AP.)

The letter argues that any new trade agreement must contribute to the fulfillment of the Paris Climate Agreement — the U.S. formally notified the United Nations of its withdrawal from that pact in November 2019 — and listed demands about labor protections, digital privacy rights, farm policy, and universal access to health care.

Other signers included the Communications Workers of America (CWA), which represents more than 700,000 people, the United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW), which includes 400,000 active members, and the Sierra Club, an environmental group with 3.8 million members.

Advocacy coordinator for the Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach, Rebecca Eastwood, told Crux that the Columbans attend closely to trade policy because their missionaries routinely see how “free trade agreements have real human consequences.”

Active among vulnerable populations in fifteen different countries, the Columbans have witnessed firsthand the human and environmental costs of previous trade agreements that have “happened under the radar,” explained Eastwood.

“You’d think you would include the people who will be most impacted by the negotiations in the process, but rarely does that happen because it’s mostly been corporations and government officials negotiating in a fair amount of secrecy,” she added.

In this Monday, Oct. 7, 2019 file photo, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer listens as President Donald Trump speaks before signing a trade agreement with Japan in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, in Washington. After a delay caused by the coronavirus pandemic, British and American negotiators have opened negotiations, remotely, on a trade agreement that the U.K. government hopes will bring a post-Brexit economic and diplomatic boost.  (Credit: Evan Vucci/AP.)

Laura Peralta-Schulte, senior government relations advocate for NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice, said that true transparency will require a “sea change in the way these negotiations move forward” because the early negotiation process currently privileges the input of “working groups that are so pro-business that there’s not really an institutional place for other voices.”

The groups issued their letter at this stage, she explained, because any concrete trade agreement ultimately will need congressional approval, where “the administration is going to be required to take our input.”

Efforts to influence the direction of major trade deals are nothing new for these Catholic groups. In late 2019, all three were involved with a broader coalition of U.S.-based faith groups monitoring the negotiations of the “new NAFTA,” formally known as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA).

“The Trump administration, to their credit, when they first negotiated the new NAFTA, had some improvements over what we had seen in democratic administrations, but they had stuck some benefits in for the pharmaceutical industry that would make medicines more expensive and put some labor standards in but nothing that could hold governments accountable,” Peralta-Schulte said.

“We worked really hard with our members of Congress to make sure that before the agreement could go forward, it would be the kind of agreement we could all get behind,” she continued.

Eastwood hopes that the new negotiations between the U.S. and the UK will build on some of the progress that they saw in those negotiations for the USMCA, which goes into effect July 1.

For example, the final version of the USMCA contains a significant shift away from provisions that had made it easy for companies to sue foreign governments to recoup lost profits — TransCanada sued the U.S. for $15 billion when the U.S. halted the Keystone XL pipeline, for example — and had subsequently produced a “chilling effect” on governments’ ability to enact domestic policies to protect environmental or labor rights, Eastwood said.

While the USMCA did not completely remove those provisions, also known as the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) mechanism, the fact that it curtailed them significantly suggests to Eastwood that the upcoming U.S.-UK agreement is a chance to enshrine that progress by excluding ISDS entirely — one of the May 4 letter’s twelve demands.

Signaling that the letter was just the start of the coalition’s efforts, Peralta-Schulte told Crux, “We’ve sent this strong letter up front to make our demands, but as they negotiate you’ll continue to see letters, and then we’ll ultimately work the issue at the congressional level as well.”

“Trade is a good thing… when we trade with each other, we’re not shooting each other, we’re sharing, and we’re doing things that are a positive for both sides, but it’s important that rules be in place to uphold human dignity and the viability of our planet” she added. “We have a real opportunity here to move from a model of trade that prioritizes corporations to a model that prioritizes people.”