After many twists and turns, MEPs decide today what sort of Transatlantic Trade and Investment deal (known as TTIP) they want the European Commission to negotiate on their behalf with the USA.
Negotiations were launched with many grand statements at the G8 Summit in Lough Erne in July 2013. TTIP was to be Europe’s saviour from austerity and to be the blueprint for all future world trade, wherever it takes place in the world.
Two years on and negotiations have been far from smooth. It was always going to be challenging to find common ground between the EU and US on public procurement, financial services and agriculture. But what has really got in the way has been the tremendous public opposition to TTIP itself. People do not want a trade deal which lowers hard won food, environmental and labour standards; weakens public services; or gives new powers to corporations to sue governments if public policy harms their profits (known as Investor State Dispute Settlement or ISDS).
Trade deals have traditionally been about lowering particular tariffs for imports and exports of goods from one country to another. Trade is not as simple as that any more and for TTIP tariffs are a tiny part of the negotiations because tariffs between the EU and US are virtually non-existent these days. Trade in TTIP is about issues that are relevant and important to us all: from which services are publicly provided, to the safety of the food on our plates; from the regulations which keep us safe at work, to the very decisions governments can make in the best interests of us all. TTIP is so broad, we have every reason to be bothered about its contents.
"People do not want a trade deal which lowers hard won food, environmental and labour standards; weakens public services; or gives new powers to corporations to sue governments if public policy harms their profits."
But trade deals are not negotiated with any real democratic accountability. On TTIP we have seen democracy thwarted at every turn.
As a direct result of thousands of emails, tweets and public meetings, MEPs will decide today the sort of TTIP they want agreed. While MEPs are only agreeing a statement on TTIP which has no obvious part in the negotiating process, it will influence the way the European Commission proceeds with negotiations. This is because once the negotiations are complete, MEPs will get a vote to accept or reject TTIP. The Commission must ensure it negotiates a deal which is likely to get accepted.
Bernd Lange, chair of the European parliament’s trade committee drafted a resolution on TTIP which he hoped MEPs would agree. This made some concessions but remained committed to the TTIP that is currently on the table. Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS), one of the most controversial aspects of TTIP is still in. TTIP is still on. Over 900 amendments were then submitted in the early stages of consultation. 13 of the parliament’s committees called for ISDS to be removed from the deal. Yet ISDS remained in the draft resolution. On 9 June, the resolution was timetabled to be debated by MEPs. A range of amendments were tabled, including one to remove ISDS altogether. With less than 24 hours to the vote, Parliament President Shultz and Lange used technicalities to pull the vote entirely. The real reason was that they could not control which way MEPs might vote, in particular there was increasing support for removing ISDS entirely.
Late last week, the vote on the resolution was rescheduled for today, along with a compromise amendment designed to take support away from anti-ISDS positions. This amendment addresses none of the fundamental issues with ISDS and adds additional costs to EU tax payers of running a new supranational ISDS court. If MEPs agree to table the amendment many of the critical amendments on ISDS, including to remove ISDS altogether, will automatically be taken off the agenda. Given the balance of powers in the European parliament, it is likely that the new amendment will be both tabled and passed. This may be an admirable piece of footwork by Shultz and Lange but it is a travesty for democracy. MEPs have been denied a chance to amend the resolution and the voices of EU citizens have been ignored again as a result.
This is not the first time.
TTIP is being negotiated in secret. Our elected representatives in the House of Commons are not allowed to see the draft negotiating texts. Our elected representatives in the European parliament had to hold a demonstration in the European Parliament before being granted permission to see these texts in January this year. Even now they can only see the texts in a locked room if they have removed any possible recording devices, including their mobile phones, and signed a 14-page agreement to keep the contents secret.
When EU citizens have asked for the negotiating texts to be publicly available, the UK government and the European Commission argue that this would compromise the deal that could be done because EU and US negotiators need privacy to out manoeuvre each other. However, the World Trade Organisation, far from a bastion of progressive social and economic policies, has an established practice of making negotiating texts in trade agreements publicly available with any text which is not yet agreed marked by square brackets. If the WTO can make texts for global trade deals publicly available with this simple practice, there is no justification for TTIP texts remaining secret.
ISDS remains one of the most controversial aspects of TTIP. This is a parallel legal system only open to corporations which enables them to sue governments if public policy harms their profits. Perhaps the most famous example is tobacco giant Philip Morris suing the Australian government over the future loss of profits as a result of new government policy to put tobacco products in plain packaging. There are numerous examples, often from the global south, where corporations have extracted billions from governments as a result of ISDS claims. Even without damages, the average cost to a government sued in this way is $4 million. This is why 145, 500 people (out of a total of 150,000) told the European Commission in its consultation on the issue that they wanted ISDS to be removed from TTIP. In fact, although MPs have had little opportunity to scrutinise TTIP, the Business Innovation and Skills select committee made up of MPs from across political parties concluded that the case for ISDS has not been made. Yet ISDS is still in TTIP and the UK government is committed to it.
There is a little known clause in the EU’s constitution which allows EU citizens, independently and not through their MEPs and governments to propose legislation, if a million people across the EU call for it. This is known as the European Citizen’s Initiative (ECI). When anti-TTIP campaigners launched an ECI calling for an end to TTIP negotiations, it was rejected on a technicality. While this is challenged in the European Court of Justice, a self-organised ECI was launched on the same principles in October 2014. Within two months a million signatures had been collected. To date 2.3 million people have given it their support. This would make it the largest and fastest ECI to gain support in history.
As a result of the imposition of crippling austerity policies on Greece and its recent rejection of them, democracy and the EU is already a hot topic this week. For the thousands of people opposed to TTIP, the systematic lack of democratic scrutiny and complete rejection of alternative perspectives on TTIP is yet another example of the EU’s inability to act in the interest of its citizens, favouring capitalist interests above all else.