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Trade deal would be a threat to our democracy

03 October 2014

Miriam Ross outlines aspects of the secret TTIP agreement between the EU and the US that are causing concern

SIX months ago, few people in this country had heard of the Trans-atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) deal that is being quietly negotiated between the EU and the United States. Now, not a week goes by without the world's biggest trade deal being debated in the press.

Opposition to the agreement has grown rapidly during the year. Echoing the trade-justice movement of 15 years ago, a diverse array of trade unions and groups campaigning about social justice, the environment, poverty, and consumer rights have come together to mobilise people against the TTIP deal, and the vast new powers it would give to big business over people's lives in the UK and elsewhere.

The part of the deal causing the most controversy, as outlined by Nick Dearden, director of the World Development Movement (Comment, 28 March), is a proposal to allow big companies to sue governments over decisions that they believe might reduce their profits. This Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) system poses a threat to democracy by limiting the ability of governments to make decisions in the interests of the people whom they represent.

This kind of "corporate court" already exists as part of other trade deals, and multinational companies have not been shy about using it. Perhaps most famously, the tobacco company Philip Morris is suing Australia for introducing plain cigarette packaging, and Uruguay for printing a health warning on packets.

Last month, Philip Morris threatened the UK Government with a lawsuit if it goes ahead with its plans to bring in plain cigarette packets here. If the TTIP deal is agreed, such threats will be much easier to carry out.

CONCERNS in the UK over the proposed corporate courts have centred on the implications for the NHS. The trade union Unite has argued forcefully that attempts by a future UK government to reverse the privatisation measures already introduced to the NHS in England and Wales - as is Labour Party policy - could trigger legal action by multinational companies.

A survey commissioned by Unite in August in marginal Conservative-held constituencies found that 68 per cent of the voters questioned wanted the NHS to be excluded from the TTIP deal. But the health minister Earl Howe insisted this month that healthcare must stay in the deal, arguing that to exclude it would be against the interests of pharmaceutical companies.

The TTIP deal could also open other public services, including education, to greater involvement by private companies; and any plans to take already privatised services such as the railways and energy back into public hands could lead to legal challenges costing billions of pounds of public money.

THE TTIP deal also threatens regulation that has been built up over decades to protect people and the environment. The stated object is to "harmonise" standards between the US and Europe - but, in practice, this is likely to mean lowering standards here to match the more basic US levels. US agribusiness companies are pushing hard, for instance, for the EU to drop its bans on chicken washed in chlorine, and beef and pork treated with hormones.

In education, the National Union of Teachers fears that the TTIP deal could be used to open up state education in the UK to the involvement of US companies, and that the ongoing process of "harmonising" standards might, in future, mean that, for example, those companies could identify UK rules to promote high standards in the training of teachers as "trade barriers". On the environment, Friends of the Earth argues that the deal would undermine the ability of governments to regulate fracking.

The campaign Stop AIDS, which has seen the price of anti-retrovirals for HIV falling from more than $10,000 per person per year to less than $100, believes that a TTIP deal could increase restrictions on the manufacture and sale of cheap, unbranded medicine.

SINCE the TTIP is being seen as the "granddaddy" of all future trade deals, poorer countries would soon experience the greatly increased powers that it seeks to give to big business.

Opposition spans the Atlantic. Trade unions and Democrat members of Congress in the US have withheld the fast-track negotiating authority that President Obama needs in order to push the deal through.

German campaigners forced the European Commission to hold a consultation on the inclusion of ISDS corporate courts in the deal. More than 150,000 people from across the EU responded to the consultation process - a record number. One third of them were from the UK. A transatlantic day of action is being planned for 11 October.

European Commission negotiators are discussing the TTIP in secret: not even MEPs have been allowed to see the text of the agreement. The TTIP's proponents are on the defensive, none the less, clearly taken aback by the strength of feeling against it.

Both the British Minister for Trade and Investment, Lord Livingston, and the EU Commissioner for Trade, Karel De Gucht, have said that they are mystified by the opposition, blaming anti-American sentiment.

But the momentum against TTIP is building, in Europe and the US. This is a campaign that we can win.

Miriam Ross is a campaigner at the World Development Movement (www.wdm.org.uk). For information about the 11 October day of action, visit www.nottip.org.uk.

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