It used to be that ‘consumers’ - in effect all of us - were constructed as passive receivers of purported benefits of trade agreements, irrespective of the downsides of these agreements. But now ‘trade’ deals like the US/EU Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) are being commonly described as ‘anti-consumer’ as their serious negative effects are recognised. Nonetheless UK consumer organisation Which? is still supporting this agreement. Why?
As people find out about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – TTIP, the US/EU ‘free trade agreement’, they tend to reject it, and many organisations are opposed to it. However, two crucial civil society elements, which many people would expect to clearly oppose TTIP, are at best fence-sitting and at worst in effect supporting TTIP. These two civil society forces, presently undermining the huge efforts across the EU and the US to kill this agreement, are consumer organisations and unions.
Despite attempts to blur their positions, cloaking them in ‘concerns’ and ‘red lines’, the fact remains that their ultimate support for TTIP can be and is being used by officialdom and political leaders to ‘demonstrate’ and exaggerate support for TTIP.
UK consumer organisation Which? is still giving overall support to TTIP on the basis of possible lower consumer prices from the largely insignificant tariff reductions and from the intended ‘harmonising’ of regulations across the EU and the US. This is in spite of the organisation’s concerns about effects on public services, the negotiating secrecy, the inclusion of investor state dispute settlement (ISDS) and possible negative effects on consumers via the undermining of standards (an extreme understatement).
Yet those price benefits are very questionable. Any price reductions rely on corporations choosing to pass on savings to consumers. Cheaper food prices would only come from lowered food health and safety standards via regulatory harmonisation (or the dangerous ‘mutual recognition’ of standards), thus the entry of Genetically Modified products, hitherto banned pesticides and chemically-treated animal products. The inevitable strengthening of intellectual property rights in TTIP, will allow, for instance, pharmaceutical companies to lengthen patents, actually increasing the cost of medicines. All these indicate negative consumer outcomes.
Which? is the biggest member of the EU consumer organisation umbrella group BEUC (Bureau Européen des Unions de Consommateurs) so its policies affect those of BEUC. It is also a founding member of Consumers International, the London-based, 170-strong world-wide alliance of consumer organisations. Consumers International organises the high status Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue (TACD), funded by the European Commission and the US and particularly relevant to TTIP.Which? thus has a key role in all these interrelated organisations.
Presently, in failing to oppose TTIP, all are letting down consumers in regard to its potential extremely negative consumer effects, even though BEUC, in particular, produces well-informed critiques on aspects and implications of TTIP.
There is inconsistency between the way Which? is assessing TTIP, and how it generally assesses goods and services. With TTIP it is prioritising possible narrow price reductions over serious potential consumer losses in terms of health and safety, jobs, GDP and the environment whereas it usually assesses not just on price but also on value and quality for its recommendations to consumers. It is difficult to see, at face value, how the organisation squares this.
As a charity, Which? is required to be apolitical, yet its support for TTIP appears extremely political. After the initial burst of proTTIP spin when negotiations were launched, the ‘jobs and growth’ arguments have foundered. ProTTIP arguments now focus on benefits to small businesses, though still unsupported by evidence. There is little left to sell the deal to the public. Under these circumstances, support from a consumer organisation, in the face of contrary evidence, appears conspicuously political.
Which?, and other consumer organisations, do not, of course, represent all consumers. Indeed Which? only claims to represent consumer interests via its surveys – although it doesn’t publicly object when TTIP promoters credit the organisation as being more widely representative.
The virtual silence of mainstream media on TTIP makes the lack of consumer information on TTIP a big issue. Which? boasts an associates list of 1.2 million and broadcasts campaign information broadly. Surely ‘representing consumer interests’ should include informing consumers about a so-called ‘trade’ deal with such potentially huge consumer implications.
Also currently failing to take a clear stand against TTIP is the union movement or at least the peak bodies of the TUC in the UK and the European TUC in Brussels. While major individual UK unions strongly and clearly oppose TTIP, the TUC’s wordy motion from its 2014 Congress motion is just not clear, in contrast to clear TUC opposition to the Canada-EU free trade deal (for which negotiations, are completed although not European Parliamentary ratification). The TUC has also failed to rebut major parties’ proclamations that it supports TTIP.
The European TUC (ETUC) position is also ambiguous. The ETUC position really matters because of the interrelationship between the ETUC’s position and that of the Socialist and Democrat group in the European Parliament, to which UK Labour Party MEPs affiliate - and the crucial fact that this second largest Parliamentary group holds the TTIP vote in its hands. But for now, similar to the consumer organisations, this important EU trade union body is failing to clearly oppose TTIP.
At the moment, despite the degree of public opposition, the TTIP juggernaut continues because of the extent to which big business influence dominates trade policy-making.
A non-binding European Parliament vote on TTIP in June will test the temperature on TTIP among MEPs.
Which? can choose to shift its stance on TTIP, opting to be more in tune with public opinion on TTIP by providing information on TTIP to consumers and by visibly opposing the agreement because of its consumer implications. Or it can continue to withhold that information and continue with campaigns that appear consumer-friendly but for the most part will be undermined by the agreement that Which? is quietly supporting – and risk losing public trust.
A shift in the consumer organisation position would remove the largest ‘public’ support element in the proTTIP argument and might also usefully influence the peak EU trade union organisations, the other civil society element that is currently failing to help win this present day war between transnational corporations and the interests of ordinary people.