Calm down, dear, it’s only a ‘trade deal’

European Commissioners' and politicians' reassurances about 'trade deals' don't convince. These secretive deals threaten our consumer and labour rights, and our public services including the NHS.

Frances O'Grady
16 October 2014
ttip protest.jpg

Image: TTIP protest in London. Demotix. Rights reserved.

Last weekend thousands of campaigners all over Europe protested about the trade deals being negotiated in their name, but without their consent. In Britain 38 degrees urged people to lobby Members of the European Parliament. The Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CETA) - trade deals between the EU and the USA and Canada respectively - have become headline news

Don’t panic, it’s only a secret trade deal

Ministers and European Commission officials are claiming that our criticisms are “misplaced”, that the benefits of the deal outweigh the drawbacks, even that the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) can be improved.

They say that public services like the NHS aren’t under threat. They tell us that workers’ rights, consumer protections and environmental standards won’t be undermined. That jobs will be created, wages will rise, and living standards will improve.

We can rebut all these pro-TTIP arguments but time is running out.

Last week the European Commission finally revealed the negotiating mandate given to them over a year ago by ministers from the European Union’s 28 governments - though the text was leaked months ago.

“Trust us” is a weak argument for politicians right now. It fails to address the justified concerns that trade unionists, environmental campaigners, consumer advocates and NGOs have expressed. Voters worry that decisions are being taken without their knowledge and without their interests at heart.

First we have to deal with Canada

While popular awareness is greatest about TTIP, it is CETA that we need to defeat first, because negotiations have already ended and the text has – apart from legal polishing – already been finalised.

CETA will be voted on by the European Council of Ministers where Business Secretary Vince Cable represents the UK. It will be considered by MEPs in the European Parliament. And it will come before the British Parliament where we will be able to see just how much national sovereignty means to our political representatives. Approving CETA would give up more national sovereignty than any European Union directive, and with no chance to amend it.

The first decision could be taken as early as the end of November when the Council of Ministers meets in Brussels, so we need to step up the pressure on the Government now.

Behind closed doors

TTIP, meanwhile, is still being negotiated in secret. As a trade unionist, I understand the need for some confidentiality in negotiations. But the secrecy involved in bilateral trade negotiations suggests that something is going on that negotiators would rather we didn’t know about.

I think the European Commission and the US trade representatives should operate on the presumption that everything should be public unless there is an over-riding need for secrecy. If they have told each other something, they can tell the rest of us without blowing their negotiating strategies. If they tell business anything, they should tell the relevant unions, citizens’ groups and campaigners.

Public sector under threat

Because there are very important issues being decided in these deals.

The impact of TTIP on the NHS is going to be the biggest concern for the people of Britain. As currently proposed, TTIP would mean US health company lawyers could make the costs of reversing the Health and Social Care Act prohibitive. Any further liberalisation or privatisation could not be reversed. And services could be exposed to corporate takeovers simply by changing the definition of ‘the public sector’, without democratic scrutiny.

All of that applies not only to the NHS, but to every public service, including those like transport, water, energy and education, whether they are currently run by the state or not.

We need to make sure that people know that all public services are under threat, not just the NHS.

TTIP could make it impossible to return any part of the railways to the public sector except at enormous financial cost. It would give multinationals the right to sue for compensation not just for contracts that had been broken, but for the loss of possible future contracts. Industry rights in a few sectors like energy are already too strong in this regard - as Germany discovered when it decided to cancel its nuclear power programme after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. TTIP would broaden, strengthen and extend these rights to every aspect of our public services.

Workers’ rights and corporate wrongs

No such protection is in prospect for workers’ rights. ISDS sets up a system of unchallengeable international tribunals imposing billion-dollar fines on democratically-elected governments for the benefit of foreign investors. Yet when progressive governments proposed earlier this year at the UN Human Rights Council and then again at the UN General Assembly that there should be enforceable processes requiring corporates to abide by international standards on human rights, the same governments who are so keen on ISDS voted against.

Workers, consumers, environmentalists and campaigners can use domestic courts of course, just as foreign investors can. But whilst the trade deals give corporates get the added bonus of ISDS tribunals to enforce their interests, in CETA workers get only an ‘advisory mechanism’ if their rights set down by the International Labour Organisation are abused. And protection for consumers and the environment is even weaker.

The German trade and industry department has agreed with the DGB trade union movement a statement which says that “respect for labour and social standards must be guaranteed just as effectively as compliance with other rules set out in the agreement.” I can’t see Vince Cable agreeing that in Britain, although I will be asking!

What jobs, and who benefits?

So, there is a lot wrong with CETA, and the TUC decided just before Congress to oppose it and lobby MPs and MEPs to vote it down. TTIP doesn’t look any better, which is why Congress decided to oppose that, too.

Are we in danger, as some politicians claim, of throwing away a boost to jobs and living standards? We don’t think so. We know that trade creates jobs – although it can destroy them too. But ‘trade’ isn’t the same as a ‘trade agreement’ especially one like CETA or TTIP that puts investor rights first.

TTIP’s biggest fans claim that the deal could boost the UK economy by £10bn over 20 years (in itself rather lacklustre – the UK economy grew by £54 billion last year alone!). That depends on a lot of optimistic assumptions, assumes none of the safeguards we’re campaigning for are achieved, and tells us almost nothing about what would happen to jobs and wages.

The economic models used to produce such rosy-tinted projections assume unemployment doesn’t change, which is difficult to square with claims of creating a million jobs, and they say very little about who will benefit from any growth. The Commission’s estimate of €545 a year for each family in Europe assumes everyone benefits equally, ignoring the massive growth in inequality which has seen most of the benefits of recent growth go only to the already obscenely wealthy.

It’s a deal, but not a good one

The message is coming out loud and clear from the people who want CETA agreed and TTIP to proceed unhindered. We should shut up about all the pitfalls because a generation down the line, we’ll have a bit of small change which we can put into buying back public services we already own.

That’s why I’m not hugely reassured by what we’re being told about CETA and TTIP. And I won’t calm down.

 Like this piece? Please donate to OurNHS here to help keep us producing the NHS stories that matter. Thank you. 

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData