02 January 2016

TTIP Update IV

One of the key issues during the ACTA negotiations was transparency – or rather the lack of it.  Despite a few token gestures from the European Commission initially, TAFTA/TTIP looks like it will be just as bad. Here's a rather nice trick the negotiators have just played:

Surprise!  The second round of negotiations for the massive Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA) won’t be happening in Washington, DC in December as planned.  It will be happening in six days.  In Belgium.

USTR’s email yesterday invited “stakeholders” to a “briefing session” next Friday where “non-governmental organizations, consumer groups, trade unions, professional organizations, business and other civil society organizations will have the opportunity to exchange views with U.S. and EU chief negotiators.” It just happens to be taking place on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

This may well be the most expensive “stakeholder engagement” opportunity presented by the Obama administration for one of its sweeping “trade” deals. At current prices, the cheapest last-minute flight to “exchange views” with TAFTA negotiators in Brussels would set you back $1977. That may not be a problem for the approximately 600 corporate trade “advisors” who are already deeply involved in helping USTR craft TAFTA negotiating positions. For the rest of us, it’s a bit like getting an email invitation to your friend’s destination wedding in Cancun a week before the ceremony (psst...I don’t really want you to come).

That act of petty spitefulness is indicative of a deep and crucial asymmetry in the TAFTA/TTIP negotiations.  Whereas some of the world's largest companies are given privileged information about what is happening – not least *where* things are happening – the public, which is poorly represented anyway, finds itself cut out from that insider knowledge, and therefore lacks the ability to follow the negotiations properly, let alone give any input to them.

That's obviously disgraceful for something that is supposedly being negotiated in their name – and which is certainly being negotiated using their taxes, which pay the European Commission negotiators their not inconsiderable salaries, and the cost of their plane tickets as they jet to and fro across the Atlantic – first class, no doubt.

But there is an even deeper, more troubling asymmetry at the heart of these talks that concerns the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) element I've written about in my last two TTIP Updates.  That's probably the most problematic and worrying area of the whole agreement, because the core idea of ISDS is that any laws or court decisions that cause even the "expectation" of future profits of companies to be diminished in some way can potentially be litigated before a secret, supranational tribunal able to impose unlimited fines on entire nations.

The subtle implication of this is that legislative changes must tend to increase corporate profits.  So, for example, improved health and safety laws would be stymied by this, as would enhanced environmental protection where it causes a company's profits to be reduced (as is likely, since better protection usually means more costs for the polluters.)

In other words, ISDS introduces exactly the same kind of upward ratchet that copyright laws have produced for the last three hundred years.  Just as copyright laws only ever make copyright longer, broader and deeper – to the benefit of companies and disbenefit of the public -  so ISDS will put huge pressure on the EU and member states only to pass legislation that improves the outlook for corporate profitability.  The fact that these kind of moves may well cause huge social damage – greater health or environmental problems – is completely overlooked, because the framing does not allow the social costs to be taken into account, only private profits.

That makes this proposal in South Korea particularly interesting:

Evaluation of trade agreements have been made in economic terms. But the impact of trade agreements is not limited to economic life. They have human rights dimensions in many aspects. For instance, trade agreements containing the TRIPS-plus provisions may affect the right to access to essential medicine, the right to food and more broadly the right to science and culture, which is protected by the Article 27(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. So the UN human rights bodies have tried to develop and propose human rights impact assessments (HRIA) of trade agreements (See The Future of Human RightsImpact Assessments of Trade Agreements).

The recent move of the National Assembly of South Korea to mandate the HRIA was influenced by the efforts of the UN human rights bodies. The lawmaker, Mr. Buh, proposed a bill to amend the Law on the Treaty-Making Process and Implementation of Trade Agreements (Trade Process Act), which includes an amendment making compulsory the HRIA on every trade pacts that are likely to be agreed upon with trade partners.

This is an important move, because it begins the long journey of re-balancing trade agreements around the world so that they take in account human rights and therefore, by implication, the public interest as well as corporate profit.  Although it's not clear whether the Korean initiative will succeed, it does at least raise the issue in a political context.  We now need to start similar conversations here in the EU and in the US regarding TAFTA/TTIP if that agreement is to have any claim to fairness and legitimacy.

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