Officially this EU US trade deal is about market access for businesses, enhancing regulatory cooperation and setting international rules. And we are assured that existing EU regulations will not be affected. Supporters of the trade talks, and these include Ireland, say that a transatlantic agreement will create a single market of 800 million people creating millions of jobs, although trade union analysts dispute the job creation figures.
But the overriding objective of the TTIP agreement, as it is called, is to facilitate trade to the greatest extent possible. Therefore my concern and the concerns of many others are centred on the question – how can we trade with the US when that country has vastly different standards – for example around food safety and employment law?
Because of these concerns more than 1 million citizens around Europe have signed a petition opposing the trade deal, and demanding the end to the negotiations. I have also registered this event as part of tomorrow’s Global Day of Action organised to send a clear signal against trade and investment deals that threaten our democratic rights, food sovereignty, jobs and the environment.
Neither TTIP nor CETA (the EU trade deal with Canada) are traditional trade agreements to reduce tariffs on imports between trading partners. These types of agreements are already in place, instead the main goal of TTIP and CETA is to remove regulatory ‘barriers’ which restrict the potential profits to be made by transnational corporations on both sides of the Atlantic.
But these ‘barriers’ are in reality some of our most prized social standards and environmental regulations, such as labour rights, food safety rules, regulations on the use of toxic chemicals, costs of medicines, digital privacy laws and even new banking safeguards introduced by the EU to prevent a repeat of the 2008 financial crisis.
To be passed the final deal must have the support of a full majority of MEPs. However – although there is this democratic component, there are serious concerns surrounding the trade talks.
Early this year the European Ombudsman criticised the EU Commission’s inadequate transparency and public access to documents in relation to TTIP. By deciding to launch her own investigation into the European Commission’s lack of disclosure of materials in their negotiations, Emily O’Reilly, brought much needed attention to this problem. The Commission subsequently made substantial disclosure of negotiation documents.
The Ombudsman rightly understood that the secrecy in these talks, which the Commission repeatedly blames on US government demands, is not only often unjustified, but strips the talks of legitimacy in the eyes of the public, irrespective of their outcome. The Commission has taken a welcome step in the right direction but this is not enough. The Ombudsman’s opinion combined with growing concern at member state level has brought the deal into the daylight, but only just.
A major concern for people is that the deal could involve ISDS, the investor-state dispute settlement mechanism. This would allow big corporations to sue governments through closed arbitration panels composed of corporate lawyers, which would by-pass domestic courts and parliaments. In early March, my political grouping, the Socialist and Democrats Group in the European Parliament adopted a very strong position paper on Investor-State Dispute Settlements opposing the inclusion of the controversial mechanism in trade deals with both the US and Canada.
This is a personal red line for me when the deal in its entirety comes before the European Parliament. And the court action against Ireland, over the plain tobacco packaging bill, from the owners of Benson and Hedges and Silk Cut cigarette brands shows how dangerous it is to give multinational corporations legal fora to challenge governments over public policy decisions.
What is happening in Ireland goes to show the obvious. Multinational corporations will hold any available legal gun to the taxpayer’s head to stop public policy-making in its tracks, whenever this policy risks harming their profits. But at least the Irish state will be fighting big tobacco on behalf of the Irish citizens in a proper court of law. ISDS would remove this transparency.
If the trade agreement is passed with such a clause, the legal battleground can well move to a private arbitration forum, an opaque netherworld where the best paid legal suits stand an even better chance of ripping off the taxpayer as punishment for public interest policy that costs big business money.
So what are the next steps in these talks?
As I said, the European Parliament will have the final say on TTIP, in a single, ‘yay or nay’-type vote. Thanks to a prerogative in place since the Lisbon Treaty entered into force, Parliament has to consent to every international treaty the European Union enters into so that it can be ratified by the Union.
This is why I could not have been absent from last autumn’s cross-party protest held outside Parliament’s reading room, given the truly Kafkian conditions under which only members of the International Trade Committee of the European Parliament had access to the documentation pertaining to the state of play of the negotiation rounds.
Although we have achieved access for all members of parliament into that room, the same conditions under which you can consult thousands of pages, further to signing a confidentiality agreement, without even the possibility to bring pen and paper in with you, still apply.
You will certainly agree with me that these are far from ideal conditions to conduct proper parliamentary scrutiny to trade negotiations that go way beyond the traditional confines of breaking down trade and customs barriers.
They extend into the alignment of standards, regulatory cooperation and the establishment of means of redress that should not be discussed under a veil of secrecy invoked to safeguard secrets on which our business and trade interests depend.
Despite these limitations, we have not simply been waiting on the side-lines until our time comes to have a formal, binding say, not least because we must try to have a positive impact on an outcome that we may not be strong or numerous enough to halt altogether.
Both the main Committee I sit in in Parliament, the Environment and Public Health Committee, and one of the Committees I am a substitute member of, the Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee, have issued formal Opinions on this matter.
They are addressed to the International Trade Committee, the lead body in charge of following this file, which will vote on a preliminary position on the TTIP negotiations in late May, before it is brought to the full house for a vote that could well take place in June or at a plenary session soon after that.
I have tabled amendments to those opinions, some individually and some others in collaboration with like-minded colleagues who share many of the concerns I have been raising since I was re-elected last year.
With regard to the Environment and Public Health committee opinion, my main focus was on opposition to an Investor-State Dispute Settlement mechanism, health standards and the protection of our Member States’ public health provision models, where European and US traditions are starkly at odds and many dangers lie in terms of our citizens’ access to affordable healthcare.
We want to ensure that no standards are watered down in the process or in its wake, even if by omission.
For example, I want to see legislation in place to address the dangers of endocrine disrupters before the end of this parliamentary term.
This would be way overdue if it were to be approved today, but it has proved extremely difficult, and many in Brussels suspect that this and other files have been stalled pending the conclusion of the TTIP negotiations, in the hope that common ground will be reached with the US.
The fact is, there are areas where our approaches and takes on risk management are so widely divergent that, if we were to come to introduce trade provisions, our standards would necessarily be compromised, breaching our leaders’ pledges.
We don’t treat our poultry with chlorine, and we have banned animals testing for cosmetics, and we don’t want this changed or liable to challenges in what can justly be called very fancy kangaroo courts.
Thankfully, the final compromise text adopted this Tuesday brought all of these concerns on board, yielding a predictably strong opinion from the Environment and Public Health Committee, seeing as so much is at stake for our citizens in these policy areas.
As concerns the Economic and Monetary affairs committee opinion, my focus, with the support of the European Consumer Organisation, BEUC, was on the prevention of a chilling effect on the work of our legislators by provisions that would leave us open to costly legal challenges by well-heeled multinational organisations.
Also, I opposed the introduction of provisions restricting justified state aids, public service provision and public ownership in critical areas, or the leeway of our financial regulators.
In fairness, these often show far more teeth across the Atlantic, even if that is not a tall order if we compare them with our sorry track record in Ireland.
I was happy to see that both the letter and the spirit of these survived the vote at the committee and made it to the final text of the opinion.
Just two days ago, the Agriculture committee approved its own opinion, and it was also strongly opposed to any undermining of food safety, animal and plant health standards, or our geographical indications.
Throughout this period, I have been constantly querying the Commission on its intentions and activities surrounding the negotiations through parliamentary questions they may fudge but not avoid.
I have been pursuing, in particular, matters that relate to the conflict between overriding public policy goals, such as public health, versus certain claims to legal rights made by private parties against those goals, in international fora.
This is the case with big tobacco, as we know. Their strategies are so aggressive that you would almost pity what their PR departments are suffering at the hands of their legal teams, were they not peddling known carcinogens for human consumption.
In conclusion, we need to ask who will benefit from this deal, and at what cost?
And I now look forward to hearing our speakers today who will cover in greater details all the issues I have touched on in my speech. I want to take this opportunity to thank them for contributing to the debate, thank you to Glenna Lynch for chairing the event.