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The Transatlantic trade deal: a project of the 1%

The EU/US trade deal (TTIP) is a vast power grab on behalf of the world’s biggest corporations, and there’s still time to stop it.

In this new international order – or disorder – the economic, military, political and even moral leadership of the West is increasingly challenged”

Michel Barnier, EU Commissioner, 12 June, on the backdrop to TTIP

“American leadership, exercised through trade, can bolster the foundation of our power – the strength of the US economy, establish the rules of the road that reflect both our interests and our values”

Michael Froman, US trade negotiator, 16 June on TTIP

Political elites on both sides of the Atlantic agree that the world is becoming a more dangerous place for them. Their power is challenged by fast growing economies like China and India, by mass rejection of an unrepresentative political system, by threats to their energy supply from Russia and the Middle East.

The push for three radical trade agreements must be seen in this context, as the quotes above show. For years, big business has been pushing American and European politicians to rewrite the rules of the global economy to reinforce corporate freedom, legal privileges and access to resources. That’s the only way, they argue, to preserve the current economic model with its concentration of wealth and power.

Rewriting the rules of the global economy means freeing trade talks from the strictures of the World Trade Organisation where troublesome states like Bolivia and India have some sway. So three new trade agreements are being negotiated: the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) of Asian, American and Australasian countries, the Trans Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) of the US and EU, and the Trade in Services Agreement (TISA), a ‘coalition of the willing’ which aims for the super-privatisation of services.

Taken together, these agreements represent a massive attack on democracy, public provision and the environment, in the name of transnational capital.

Race to the bottom

TTIP promises to be the biggest free trade deal in history. At its heart is a desire to ‘harmonise’ standards between the EU and US. These differential standards are seen as slowing down the flow of capital across our continents. These standards also happen to be hard won protections on, for instance, food and chemical safety, the environment and workers’ rights.

On one side of the Atlantic, US agribusiness is lobbying hard to make sure Europe is forced to import food containing GM products, not to mention meat which has been through a number of disgusting practices. While the EU has insisted it won’t water down food standards, last week, US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, said the EU needed to “rethink its current bans on chlorine-washed chicken and beef from cattle raised with growth hormones.” Clearly food markets are still very much up for grabs in TTIP.

On the other side, US and UK banks are desperate to include financial regulation in the talks, as they battle against Obama’s weak but clearly not weak enough, post-crash limitations on the financial sector.

A recent leaked report shows how control of energy is also a major element of TTIP, helping wean Europe off its energy reliance on Russia without cutting down on fossil fuels. A leaked paper recently showed how the EU’s proposals for an ‘energy chapter’ in TTIP would replace Russian gas with a reliance on US shale gas, which is expected to boom as a result. Fossil fuels exports would expand, the EU’s reliance on fossil fuels would actually increase and national and local government would find it harder to set their own energy policy or set localised renewable energy programs.

Public services are also up for grabs. Politicians claim that there will be opt-outs for services like the NHS. Don’t believe it. Documents leaked this month on the EU’s negotiating position show that there isn’t a public services opt-out, and in fact the EU are throwing ‘privately funded education services’ open to US companies, as well as some water services.

European education trade union ETUCE commented last week “With some minor exceptions, the EU is essentially opening the door wide to for-profit American companies to provide education from primary school all the way to university”. For the UK, this means ‘locking in’ our rapidly liberalised education and health sector.

Corporate courts

This will all be backed with the force of a parallel legal system, which is possibly the most controversial aspect of TTIP. These structures, known as ISDS, create an arbitration system which US corporations will be able to use to sue the British government for introducing regulation which damages their bottom line (and vice versa of course).

Imagine a future government wanted to remove private capital from the NHS. Or freeze energy prices. Or restore public control to the railways. Or outlaw fracking. Under TTIP, they could be landed with a law suit from big US ‘investors’ who would claim that the damage to their profits from such public policy essentially amounts to theft.

We know this because these legal systems already exist, in numerous other investment agreements. They have allowed tobacco corporations to sue Uruguay for putting health warnings on cigarette packets, and Australia from putting cigarettes in plain packaging. They have been used to challenge a Canadian moratorium on fracking and a German moratorium on nuclear power. They have been used to challenge Slovakia’s public health system, and Argentina’s energy price freeze in the midst of an economic meltdown.

The UK government argues that there’s no need to worry – the UK hasn’t been taken to task by such a tribunal before. But, of course, that’s because we’ve not had TTIP before.

We can win

Last week, MPs were firmly told by a British government minister that they would not be allowed to see the EU’s negotiating mandate on TTIP. So an agreement being negotiated on our behalf by EU officials is not even open to scrutiny by our elected representatives. We don’t yet even know if the British parliament will have a vote on the agreement.

But TTIP is far from agreed – and it can be stopped. Large movements have grown up to oppose the trade offensive in the US, where trade unions, campaigners, consumer groups and democrat congressmen have stopped Obama from getting the so-called ‘fast track’ authority he really needs to get this deal finalised. Recent votes have suggested that three quarters of House Democrats have serious reservations about TTIP – not to mention TPP.

German campaigners have collected half a million signatures and held demonstrations against the agreement, forcing the European Commission to hold a consultation on the corporate tribunals aspect of TTIP.

Belgian campaigners – including MEPs and political candidates – were placed under mass arrest for daring to demonstrate against the agreement in Brussels in the run up the European elections.

Here in Britain, a day of action is planned for the 12 July, to express opposition to TTIP. It is supported by large trade unions Unison, GMB, UCU and NUT, campaign groups like WDM, War on Want and Friends of the Earth, and grassroots campaigners like Occupy London and Frack Off.

The negotiators are working against the clock. For the US this agreement must be concluded by early 2016 to avoid running up against the presidential election. We can prevent that happening.

That doesn’t simply mean that our worst fears for TTIP wouldn’t be realised. It will be a major victory against the corporate takeover of our world. It will allow us to link up with the growing movement against so-called ‘free trade agreements’ rapidly spreading from Bolivia and Ecuador to South Africa and India.

The defeat of TTIP would put us on the front foot once again, strengthening the movement of the 99%.


This article previously appeared at Open Democracy and  is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 licence. Nick Dearden is Director of the World Development Movement

Image credit: protest against the Trans Pacific Partnership in the US by Democratic Underground


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