What question does TTIP answer?

I had the opportunity a week ago to hear views on TTIP on the other side of the Atlantic, when I was invited to speak at Harvard University and took the opportunity to meet various stakeholders there and in Washington.

Interestingly, many of the concerns raised by people I spoke to were very similar to those that have been raised in Europe. Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise, since any finalised deal would have significant effects on both sides of the Atlantic. Indeed, the AFL-CIO — the US equivalent of our Trade Union Congress — is working closely with the ETUC on this.

One trade union representative asked, “What’s the question to which TTIP is the answer?” — wondering whether it was simply the removal of “corporate irritants”, and pointing out that the main aim of the proposal is not to reduce inequality, nor to fight climate change, nor to improve workers’ rights. The suggestion that we should establish special privileged courts to protect investors — but not to hear cases of, for example, failure to respect ILO labour standards — only reinforces the view among US trade unionists that this is a proposal that is intended to benefit the top 10% in society and not the average citizen.

Naturally, trade unions are aware that there are potential benefits of a good deal. On regulatory standards, the US trade union view is that a convergence between the EU and the US would be a good thing. And lowering tariffs would be a bonus — but they also point out that most tariffs between Europe and America are already quite low.

The consumer protection organisation Public Citizen asked similar questions. On face value, they said, TTIP is fine — but closer inspection of some of the proposed content isn’t. For them, the risk is that it becomes a vehicle for big corporations to push a deregulatory agenda, undermining vital public protections such as the EU’s REACH legislation on dangerous chemicals or the rules on GMOs. Regulatory cooperation would be a very good thing in its own right — but why should it come about in the context of a trade negotiation where the primary aim is increased trade, and not, say, increased health and safety or consumer protection standards?

There was some appreciation on the American side of the greater transparency of the European side of the TTIP talks, now that the Commission has published the negotiating mandate it received from EU governments, alongside many other key documents. Apparently, access to such documents is still restricted in the US. Of course, detailed negotiations between countries have traditionally been conducted with a degree of secrecy, because neither side wants to reveal its hand in advance to the other. But at the same time, there’s no reason why the objectives pursued should not be public and open to scrutiny — especially where major issues of public policy are at stake, as they are in this case.

Of course, I also heard pro-TTIP views, again reflecting some of the aspirations that exist on the European side of the Atlantic. If we do it right, worthwhile prizes from TTIP include not just increased trade and reduced red tape (such as duplicate testing and form-filling), but also, importantly, a new way jointly to set higher standards than are wanted by some other parts of the world. If the EU and the US agreed high standards, this would set a powerful global precedent. But, as in Europe, these aspirations were accompanied by many caveats and concerns.

Our negotiators must not take these concerns lightly. At the end of the day, there will be no TTIP unless concerns about ISDS, regulatory standards and potential threats to public services are addressed. If they aren’t, not only will there will be no majority for TTIP in the European Parliament — as the Socialists & Democrats group recently underlined in its position on ISDS — but there will be strong resistance, too, in the USA.

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