Comment: Big business and the worldwide assault on democracy
By Nick Dearden
"More jobs, lower prices, more choice, and an additional £100 billion into the European economy".
That's David Cameron's take on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the biggest trade deal in history, which is being negotiated in Brussels this week between US and EU representatives.
TTIP is one of Cameron's main objectives over the next two years. He calls it a "once-in-a-generation prize" which he's "determined to seize".
For European and American big business, TTIP is indeed a "once in a generation prize". But forget about jobs and growth. Those figures have been discredited.
Don't get distracted by the term 'trade agreement' either, because TTIP has very little to do with 'trade' as most people understand it. Tariff barriers between the US and EU are very low already.
What TTIP is really about is trying to get rid of other supposed 'barriers to investment' – like environmental protection, workers' rights legislation and food safety standards. It is about hardwiring 'free market' principles into society – even creating parallel legal systems to make states accountable to corporations rather than vice versa.
In fact, TTIP is one prong of a huge trade offensive which, together with the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) and Trade in Services Agreement (TISA), could represent the biggest transfer of power to corporations that we've seen in over a decade.
The first element of TTIP is 'harmonising' regulatory standards between the EU and US. For 'harmonisation' read 'lowering'. As Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith told parliament last week, "it is hard to imagine that the process will involve any standards going up".
In Europe, for example, we base much regulation on the 'precautionary principle'. This means that if it seems something might be harmful to public health, we tend to disallow it. In the US, the onus is of proof is reverse – you need to prove the harm. That's why in the EU we ban 1,200 substances for use in cosmetics. In the US just 12 are prohibited.
There are other examples too – like chlorinating poultry, feeding beef cows with growth hormones and selling genetically modified food. Common in the US – heavily restricted in the EU. Campaigners fear all such standards will be weakened by TTIP.
It's not all one-way of course. Wall Street investment banks are rubbing their hands at the thought of being able to rid themselves of the post-crash restrictions on the financial sector that Obama brought in.
As always, Cameron is dancing to the tune of the City of London. Green MP Caroline Lucas told parliament "the banking lobby is so happy with the financial services proposals that it has said that the text could have come straight from its own brochure". Forget a Robin Hood tax or controls on money flows. Under 'lowest common denominator' regulation, we've not got a hope of controlling finance.
In essence, TTIP will re-write the rules of the EU and US economies to give additional powers and protection to investors – that's to say foreign corporations.
Take public services. TTIP won't just give US and European businesses equal access to health or education or government procurement. It will lock-in free market reforms in these areas, making it much more difficult for a future government to, say, regulate the health service, or renationalise energy companies.
If they tried it, the British government would be confronted with a lawsuit from a multinational corporation, claiming the government had infringed their ability to make a profit. What's more, that lawsuit wouldn't be fought in a domestic court, but by a special arbitration panel.
This is the so-called Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) mechanism, which writer George Monbiot described as a "full frontal assault on our democracy". And it isn't scaremongering – such mechanisms already exist in other trade agreement. They are currently being used by corporations to sue, for instance, Uruguay for putting health warning on cigarette packages, Quebec for placing a moratorium on fracking, Germany for phasing our nuclear energy and Egypt for raising the public sector minimum wage.
This is why I have joined the general secretaries of some of Britain's largest trade unions, as well as the heads of environmental, social justice and anti-poverty campaign groups, to call on the British government to stop the TTIP negotiations. In the absence of any public consultation on such a sweeping package of measures as TTIP represents, anyone concerned about the environment, the NHS, education, civil liberties, public safety or even just democracy in its widest sense, needs to make their voice heard.
What's more: we can win. The European Commission and US Administration must get this agreement finalised before the end of 2015, so they don't run up against the presidential elections. But Obama already looks unlikely to be given so called 'fast track' authority to negotiate. That means endless congressional discussion during which Obama will depend on Republican votes, given the hostility in the Democratic party and trade unions to TTIP.
Over here, we've already had one success: the European Commission has been forced to hold a public consultation on the ISDS clause of TTIP, due to the size of the protest against it – especially in Germany. But in all likelihood, this is simply a temporary retreat.
Big business is in no mood to compromise. Chief lobbyist Pascal Kerneis told a meeting on EU investment policy in 2011: "Industry will oppose any deal in which investment protection is traded off against public policy objectives, including human and labour rights."
The battle lines have been drawn.
Nick Dearden is director of the World Development Movement. He was previously director of the Jubilee Debt Campaign between 2008 and 2013. Earlier in his career, Nick worked for radical charity War on Want and Amnesty International UK.
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