The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP, has received an unprecedented amount of attention from constituents and campaigners.
This Wednesday 10 June will mark a crucial moment for the EU, when Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) will official adopt their vision of a trade deal currently under negotiation between the European Union and United States.
The message is clear: people are concerned that it could put our NHS and public services at risk, lower our high regulatory standards and worker protections and undermine the sovereignty of our governments. Others reject any notion of a trade agreement with the US at all.
These fears have come to be symbolised by four letters. ISDS, or Investor-State Dispute Settlement, is a system of private arbitration already found in bilateral trade agreements all over the globe, through which corporations are able to sue governments for passing laws that threaten their profits. It does not abide by the same rules as national court systems: in the para-judicial and often secret world of ISDS hefty fines, at the expense of the taxpayer, are up for grabs by foreign investors.
Examples of abuses of ISDS have rightly caused an outpour of moral outrage. The Slovak government was successfully sued for renationalising its healthcare system. The Egyptian government is currently being sued by French utility company Veolia for increasing the minimum wage. While Swedish energy giant Vattenfall is claiming compensation from Germany for rejecting nuclear power.
My categorical opposition to ISDS has never wavered, and since being elected as Labour MEP for the North East I have made fighting to see its exclusion from future trade deals a priority. I am equally categorical that I am not anti-trade: when it works in society's best interests, it can be a vital asset to boosting local economies, supporting small and medium sized enterprises and providing jobs and training opportunities. TTIP could provide us with a unique opportunity to re-regulate globalisation.
However, politics is 'the art of the possible'. As trade negotiations are carried out between the European Commission and the Obama administration, my role as an MEP is a limited one. It comes in the form of a veto once the final text of TTIP has been agreed. However if the Commission is to have any hope of seeing TTIP through, it must listen to the Parliament.
EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström has outlined her desire to include ISDS in no uncertain terms and the majority of European leaders, including our own Tory government, are evangelical advocates of the deal, irrespective of its final contents. Unless Parliament is clear in its opposition to secret courts, the TTIP we don’t want is almost certainly the one we will get.
This is why what we do this week matters. On Wednesday, for the first time since the European elections, MEPs will set out red-lines in advance of a final vote on TTIP.
The basic text that will be voted on this Wednesday already contains key protections, notably on public services, labour safeguards and regulation, which were won by MEPs in the trade committee a week ago. However the wording on ISDS is not as strong as it needs to be. Therefore, I have ensured that Parliament will get the chance to vote on amendments opposing ISDS. My party has laid down amendment 115, which states that ISDS is “not necessary”. Amendment 27 is an even stronger cross-party amendment that I co-ordinated with the Greens, which states explicitly that ISDS “must be opposed”.
Furthermore, while we have called for a full carve out of public services from the scope of the agreement, the trade committee report calls for a 'hybrid list' for services - combining positive and negative listing. In order to guarantee that TTIP does not accelerate the privatisation of public services, I believe that a 'positive list' for service offers is necessary - meaning that only what is explicitly on the negotiating table is open for trade. Therefore, I'll be advocating support for another amendment (Amendment 13 tabled by the Greens, GUE and Five Star MEPs) which reintroduces this principle.
Getting these amendments through will be tough: the Socialists and Democrats group in the Parliament, of which Labour MEPs are members, do not command a majority. We are instead faced with a near-majority of pro-TTIP and -ISDS conservatives and liberals, plus the broadly abstentionist UKIP and fascist Members and an unconditional rejection of TTIP from the far left.
Before Wednesday's vote, I will do everything I can, supported by my Socialist and Democrat colleagues, to convince as many MEPs as possible to break ranks and support our amendments. The challenge will then be to get an overall majority in support of a resolution that rejects ISDS.
But to do this we need your help. A final push from the public, a final outcry against secret courts and a declaration of support for progressive values and key protections could make all the difference. I urge you all to contact your MEP - by phone, email or social media - and explain why their support is so crucial. Wednesday will see democracy in action; make sure your voice is heard.