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If voting changed anything, they'd abolish it - on trade deals and corporate hydras

The bizarre wranglings of both EU and US politicians on 'trade deals' show they're caught between the rock of public opinion and the hard place of corporate might. Meanwhile other corporate-driven trade deals are being worked on in the shadows.

In the old days, autocrats just dissolved their parliaments when they didn't do as they were bid, as Bismarck did in 1886 when the German Reichstag didn't pass his army bill. The leaders in Brussels don't have exactly the same powers but their attitude to popular democracy is not dissimilar.

On 10 June our elected representatives in Strasbourg turned up to vote on TTIP but were told by their leaders that they couldn't do that just yet. Maybe in three months.

Two days later in Washington, members of Congress narrowly voted to give the president the 'fast-track' power to sign international trade deals like TTIP without further scrutiny from elected representatives. But then Democrats teamed up with Republicans to throw out a “worker protection” bill – an amendment that meant the overall bill will have to undergo further Congressional wrangling before it can become law.

When our elected representatives behave in such unexpected ways, something is afoot. And what is afoot in this instance is the citizenry.

A record-breaking 2 million signatures on a petition. A record-breaking 150,000 responses to the consultation on ISDS (special investor courts, one of the most contentious aspects of TTIP). Protests across Europe. ’Tens of thousands’ of emails flooding every MEP.  

Hesitation in Strasbourg

On 10 June the European Parliament’s trade committee (INTA) was due to present its recommended negotiating position to the whole parliament.

This vote would have been the first indication of where our representatives in the Parliament stand on TTIP.

The trade committee’s draft was strongly supportive of TTIP. But a number of further amendments were due to be voted on by all MEPs on the 10 June - on public services, ISDS, environmental regulations and intellectual property rights.

If passed, the amendments - although quite moderate and inadequate from the point of view of many campaigners - would nevertheless have restricted some of the main features of TTIP being demanded by political leaders and corporations on both sides of the Atlantic.

They would be very unwelcome to the big US health corporations.

Faced with this possibility, political leaders took fright and postponed the debate. They’ve now shoved the report back to the trade committee, which on 29 June will decide at an extraordinary meeting “whether the 116 amendments [to parliament's draft recommendations to TTIP negotiators] should be put to a vote by Parliament as a whole". Any amendment will need the support of 5 trade committee MEPs.

Whatever happens, parliament won’t get a vote til July – or more likely September.

The Commission and the leaders of the two main groups in parliament will now have to stitch together some kind of deal or, as the press release expresses it, build "a robust consensus on the draft recommendations".

The Issues for MEPs

Politicians across Europe are caught between the rock of public opinion and the hard place of Washington and corporations.

On public services, the left and Greens (as well as some right-wingers) have proposed an amendment (number 13) which says that only those services explicitly listed in the treaty could be affected by it – the opposite of the “everything’s on the table” approach. This amendment was also more definite about allowing governments the right of renationalisation than the current document, though this did make some attempt to exclude services like health, education and water from the treaty.

On ISDS, the pressure from the US has been intense.

In September 2014 the German economics minister Sigmar Gabriel told the German parliament that (in relation to a parallel agreement with Canada):

"There is no need for investment protection under international law in developed legal systems such as those of Canada and the EU. ... It’s very clear that we reject these investment protection clauses".

But press reports indicated that the US would back away from TTIP if ISDS were not included.

Gabriel paid a visit to the US. Just two months after rejecting it, he accepted ISDS, saying: "It will not be possible to take the dispute settlement procedure out of CETA".

For TTIP, EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström proposed a compromise. The basic principle of ISDS would remain: corporations would retain the exclusive right to challenge government decisions in a special court which would bypass national courts and judicial systems. But the special international court would be more transparent and decisions could be appealed.

The trade committee (backed by both the Socialist and Conservative groups) recommended this ‘compromise’ to Parliament, recommending:

"(1.d.xv) ... a permanent solution for resolving disputes between investors and states which is subject to democratic principles and scrutiny, where potential cases are treated in a transparent manner by publicly appointed, independent professional judges in public hearings and which includes an appellate mechanism, - in the medium term, a public International Investment Court could be the most appropriate means to address investment disputes..."

The Socialists spun this as ‘rejecting’ ISDS, adding in the phrase "without the use of investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) private arbitration".

The right wing group, Conservatives and Reformists (including the Tories) saw it, in spite of the language, as retaining ISDS, as did the left in the GUE/NGL grouping.

The left, supported by many Labour MEPs, proposed instead amendment number 27:

“to oppose the inclusion of investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) in TTIP”.

It was on this issue, more than any other, that the leaders in Brussels were worried how MEPs might vote.

Congressional Mayhem in Washington

In the United States the Democrats are similarly caught between their strong pro-business position and their reliance on the support of trade unions at election time. Workers are very aware of the fact that NAFTA, the free trade deal with Mexico and Canada, cost over 800,000 jobs in the US. There is also strong public opposition to ISDS.

Many Republicans on the right of the party also oppose TTIP and might be unwilling to give Obama any special powers.

The House voted last week to give Obama Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), the fast-track power he wanted to sign trade treaties. But then they rejected a special measure known as Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), which would support any worker who lost their job as a result of TTIP or TPP. A large number of Democrats voted against this (final vote 126 for, 302 against) for a number of reasons - the funding for TAA would be taken from Medicare and public-sector workers were not included. But ultimately it's clear that they voted against TAA as a way of blocking fast-track. As a result of the House vote on TAA, the House bill is now different from the one passed by the Senate. So TPA could not be signed into law by the president.

According to the Financial Times (17 June) this is just a tactic to gain certain concessions from Obama :

"Among their demands is the inclusion of discussions on currency manipulation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and provisions that would allow trade sanctions to be levied if a country was found guilty of artificially devaluing its currency to gain a competitive advantage for its exporters".

There are a number of options now for Republicans: 1) another vote in the House, hoping that the Democrats would change their mind; 2) present the House bill to the Senate and hope for approval; 3) write an entirely new bill on fast-track authority without TAA and hope to get it passed in both parts of Congress.

According to the Huffington Post on 17 June, Republicans have opted for a new bill on fast-track without TAA: "Now, Republicans plan to bring stand-alone legislation that will grant Obama fast-track authority while excluding the controversial TAA funding."

This tactic may or may not work. If it doesn't, there are others.

The Corporate Hydra of Trade Agreements

TTIP is just one of a number of so-called 'free-trade agreements' which the Atlantic corporate elite is pursuing. Two agreements, TTIP and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), covering the Atlantic and Pacific areas, include between 60 and 70% of the world's economy (GDP and trade). These are ruthless in their pursuit of profit and in the ways they interfere not just in national economies but in the national democratic process.

WikiLeaks published on 10 June the Healthcare Annex to the secret draft 'Transparency' Chapter of TPP. It sets out the potential obligations of member countries in relation to the listing of pharmaceuticals and medical devices which governments can provide under national health care programs. According to Dr Deborah Gleeson, an expert in international trade and public health policy at La Trobe University, "it sets a terrible precedent for using regional trade deals to tamper with other countries' health systems and could circumscribe the options available to developing countries seeking to introduce pharmaceutical coverage programs in future."

Then there's the similarly secret Trade in Services Agreement (TISA), spearheaded by the US and the EU and covering 23 other countries. This 'T-treaty trinity' is truly a global push for greater corporate power and, at the same time, a push by the United States and its EU allies for global political, economic and military supremacy. It's no accident that both TTIP and TPP exclude the two potential challengers to US power in the Eurasian and Pacific areas, Russia and China.

A setback for TTIP, even if it meant just protecting existing public services and standards and defeating ISDS, would be a boost to the international resistance to this threatened degradation of physical, social and political life.

On 29 June the International Trade Committee in Brussels will meet to cobble together some kind of deal to get TTIP safely through the European Parliament. In Washington the political leadership will manoeuvre to get around the opposition from some of the elected representatives in the House.

The citizenry, for now, have thrown a spanner in the works of TTIP. This is not final victory over TTIP but it does indicate that the public voice is getting through to some of our elected representatives. With regard to our MEPs, it's crucial to keep piling on the pressure in the next few months.

 

About the author

Gus Fagan, active in Keep Our NHS Public, was senior lecturer in international relations at London Metropolitan University. He edited Labour Focus on Eastern Europe and is on the editorial board of Debate: Journal of Contemporary Central and Eastern Europe.

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