There’s a flurry of media activity over the proposed US-EU trade deal, TTIP. It was triggered by the German vice-chancellor, who said that the process had all but failed because the EU and the US couldn’t agree. Both the US government and the European Commission were quick to point out that negotiations continued, though the optimistic timescale clung to by the Americans (agreement by the end of 2016) now looks pretty much impossible.
I’ve written in detail before about the pros and cons of TTIP. In principle, easier trade between Europe and America ought to be a good thing. But the early ideas for the deal included some elements that were totally unacceptable, including controversial private courts where multinational corporations could sue governments. Campaigners had also expressed legitimate fears about regulatory devaluation (undermining Europe’s high standards protecting workers and consumers) and about the dangers of opening up our public services to private tender.
In response, the European Parliament took a strong position, saying that it wouldn’t ratify a deal which included any of these unacceptable elements. Since MEPs’ approval will be necessary for the deal to go ahead — and since both US and EU negotiators are fully aware of this fact — it looked like we were winning the battle.
But, as with all the work we do at European level, June’s vote to quit the EU has opened up a whole new can of worms, not just for Europe (which risks losing one of its strongest pro-trade voices) but for Britain too. The Americans have made it abundantly clear that they are not in the market for bespoke agreements with smaller countries. Even if they were willing to negotiate separately with Britain — which is by no means certain — the Tories have made no secret of the fact that they are desperate for a deal, any deal, with countries like the US to try to offset the economic damage from leaving the EU.
So Britain will be negotiating from a position of urgent economic necessity, trying to wring concessions from a market five times our size, and without the European Parliament (or other countries’ governments) to moderate the Tories’ more extreme free-marketeering tendencies. Since our government was already one of the strongest supporters of even the most dangerous parts of TTIP, this does not bode well for any deal we do manage to negotiate.
Inside Europe, this was a battle we were confident of winning. Outside, all bets are off.