What’s the deal with trade deals?


12/07/2014 – Protestors against the EU-US trade deal (TTIP – Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) march from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to Europe House, the London Headquarters of the European Commission and the European Parliament, in Smith Square, London.

by Jack Pickering (Cardiff People and Planet Society)

There’s been more than enough to fill the headlines recently (the war in Syria, the ongoing refugee crisis, the climate talks in Paris, as just a few examples), yet what hasn’t been reported on much are the new set of Trans-Atlantic trade deals being negotiated between the EU, the US and Canada. If you have heard of them, you’ve probably heard that they’re concerning to many who care about labor rights, environmental protections, food safety regulations, internet freedom, access to affordable medicine, local procurement policies, and more. If you don’t know much about them, there’s a good reason for that; they’ve been discussed in secret, with very little democratic oversight. Until recently, not even MPs were allowed to see the TTIP negotiation documents, with security-cleared specialists still not able to access the dedicated reading rooms, let alone public.

The free trade deals I’m referring to are the TTIP (Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) and TISA (Trade in Services Agreement) with the United States, and CETA (Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement) with Canada. These deals are aiming to establish a number of things, such as the Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) mechanism that would establish a special supranational court system which transnational corporations can use to sue national governments when their profits are threatened. This sounds like the stuff of conspiracy theories, but it is real, and similar systems have already been used by Vattenfall (a Swedish energy company) to sue the German government for £1 billion over environmental regulations placed on one of their coal fired power plants. Meanwhile, U.S. tobacco company Philip Morris has sued the governments of Uruguay and Australia for implementing public health policies to discourage smoking. Although after a substantial pressure from some member states and NGOs, EU in now-concluded 12th round of TTIP talks offered an alternative proposal of a special court to handle such disputes more transparently.

This part of the agreements is probably their most publicised element, due to the impact it could have on crucial pieces of legislation and regulation where corporations are involved. Regardless of its potential uses, it will likely make governments much more wary of challenging or hindering the operations of big business. In addition to this, the fact that both the CETA and TTIP negotiations are looking to establish the ISDS system in parallel means that if one fails, then the other can be used instead, as the corporations commonly have branches in both the US and Canada. Therefore even the new European proposal of special court does not sound very hopeful, as the ISDS business-as-usual is already included in finalised CETA. If you think corporations or business in general should be regulated or managed in any way, for any reason, then you should probably be concerned about this element of the agreements.

However, the trade deals contain more than just the ISDS. A lot of what is being discussed concerns the “harmonisation” and “mutual recognition” of regulations between the EU and the US/ Canada. These are intended to lead towards more similar regulation for businesses both in Europe and the US/Canada, so that the obstruction to business posed by regulation can be minimized, and profits maximised (obviously). Meanwhile, some experts are concerned about the potential for privatization of many public services through the TISA agreement, which aims to liberalize the trade of services including banking, healthcare, and transport.

This is all a bit obscure and arcane even for people who have followed trade deals in the past, however it is essential that we understand what they mean and how they could impact our lives (especially given that they have no expiration date). For example, washing chicken in chlorinated water is a common practice in the US, and regulated against by the EU. This issue of regulation goes both ways; financial firms in the US are more stringently regulated in the US than in the UK, and this “harmonisation” to lower regulation standards could allow them to continue their risky practices in the UK.

These deals put governments under pressure to bow to the wishes of big business, and this creates a serious problem. When we’re facing a world with job insecurity, a changing climate and widespread environmental degradation, as well as threats to our vital public services, these sorts of trade deals and the threats they pose are unacceptable. The fact that these deals have been discussed far away from the public eye and without any kind of democratic oversight is especially galling. We need to learn as much as possible about these trade deals and work to stop them wherever possible.

A set of talks organized by People & Planet Society on these Free Trade deals are being held on March 5th, from 3pm -7 pm, in Cathays Community Centre. The event is completely free, and will include dinner. Come join in if you want to learn more.