TTIP stumbles in Strasbourg and Washington

Gus Fagan reports:

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. And even then, not on all proposed amendments to the treaty. Two days later in Washington, members of Congress turned up and voted by a slim majority to give the President the ‘fast-track’ power to sign international trade deals like TTIP without elected representatives having the right to scrutinise what he had signed. But then they immediately voted by a huge majority for a minor bill which had the effect of denying the President the power they had previously voted to confer on him.

When our elected representatives behave in such unexpected ways, something is afoot. And what is afoot in this instance is the citizenry. Ahead of the vote in the European Parliament, campaigners announced that the Europe-wide petition against TTIP had reached a record-breaking 2 million signatures. Between March and July 2014, the Commission carried out a public consultation on one of the most contentious features of TTIP, the chapter which gives corporations the exclusive right to legally challenge government decisions in a special court (ISDS). It received the highest ever number of responses to a European Public Consultation. Almost 150,000 replies were received. At least 97% of the responses opposed the inclusion of ISDS in the trade deal.

There have been protests and petitions right across Europe. According to one Conservative MEP, in the run-up to the cancelled debate in the Parliament, ‘The emails have been pouring in for weeks: thousands of them, tens of thousands.’

Hesitation in Strasbourg

On 28 May, the International Trade Committee (INTA) of the European Parliament debated and agreed a document which it proposed the European Parliament should accept as its recommendation to the European Commission on TTIP negotiations. The final vote on this document by the whole Parliament was to have taken place on 10 June.

The initial draft of the report, written by Bernd Lange, the German MEP from the Socialists and Democrats Group who chairs the Trade Committee, was strongly supportive of TTIP. There were a large number of amendments proposed at the Committee’s meeting on 28 May. A number of amendments that weren’t accepted by the Trade Committee were due to be presented again to the vote of the full parliament on 10 June. These amendments mainly concerned public services, ISDS, environmental regulations and intellectual property rights and, if passed, would severely restrict some of the main features of TTIP which are being heavily pushed by political leaders and corporations on both sides of the Atlantic.

The European Parliament is the only political representative body in Europe that will have the right to approve or reject TTIP once a text has been agreed by the US and EU negotiators. That’s why the attitude of MEPs to the issues raised by this treaty is so important and this vote on 10 June would have been the first indication of where our representatives in the Parliament stand on TTIP.

Faced with the possibility that some of these amendments would get passed by the Parliament, the political leaders took fright. The debate was postponed. About a week later, on 16 June, a press release announced that

‘the International Trade Committee will hold an extraordinary meeting on 29 June in Brussels to decide whether the 116 amendments tabled to Parliament’s draft Recommendations to Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiators should be put to a vote by Parliament as a whole.’

For an amendment to survive and make its way to the full Parliament in July or September, ‘at least five International Trade Committee MEPs would need to vote in favour of them’.

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. 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’.

Issues for MEPs

A key issue for MEPs was what the treaty proposes for public services. The Trade Committee’s amended document recommended a scheme which would

‘(1.b.vii) … exclude current and future Services of General Interest as well as Services of General Economic Interest from the scope of application of TTIP, (including but not limited to water, health, social services, social security systems and education)…’ and ‘… allow for enough flexibility to bring services of general economic interest back into public control…this exclusion should apply irrespective of how the services are provided and funded.’

‘The Left and Greens as well as some right-wing MEPs supported what they considered a stronger amendment (no. 13):

‘(1.b.v) to ensure that negotiations on services liberalisation are pursued in full accordance with the ‘positive list’ approach, for both Market Access and National Treatment …; to ensure by way of a horizontal clause that public authorities retain the option of reassuming public control over liberalised services of general economic interest.’

This so-called ‘positive-list’ approach would open up to competition only those services explicitly listed in the treaty. This amendment was also more definite about allowing governments the right of renationalisation.

These recommendations alone, although quite moderate and inadequate from the point of view of many campaigners, would nevertheless be very unwelcome to the big US health corporations.

The most serious challenge came over the infamous Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS). Not just campaigners but even some EU governments had previously expressed serious concerns about ISDS, Germany in particular. Speaking in the German parliament in September 2014 about the free-trade deal being negotiated with Canada (CETA), the economics minister, Sigmar Gabriel, said:

‘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 these opposing voices from EU governments didn’t stand up to the pressure from Washington and from EU corporations. The press was reporting that the US would back away from TTIP if ISDS were not included. Just two months later, following a visit to the United States, Gabriel now accepted ISDS: ‘It will not be possible to take the dispute settlement procedure out of CETA.’

Faced with widespread opposition across Europe to ISDS, the EU Trade Commissioner, Cecilia Malmström, proposed a reform of the ISDS system. The basic principle 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. Governments, she proposed, would be able to adopt ‘binding interpretations of agreements’.

What the Trade Committee proposed to the Parliament was basically Malmström’s reform. It suggested:

‘(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;’

Representatives of both main groups in the Trade Committee agreed to this. The agreed text, quoted above, was spun differently by the different groups. In the case of the Socialists, they added the phrase ‘without the use of investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) private arbitration’ to the text as an amendment, which enabled them to claim that they had rejected ISDS. The right wing group, Conservatives and Reformists, which the Tories are part of, saw it, in spite of the language, as retaining ISDS, as did the Left in the GUE/NGL .

The Left, supported by many Labour MEPs, proposed instead (amendment no 27):
‘to oppose the inclusion of investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) in TTIP, as other options to enforce investment protection are available, such as domestic remedies’.

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 there is a similar high level of outright opposition, especially from trade unions. Here the emphasis is on the threat to jobs, especially in manufacturing. 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 while displacing over a million small farmers in Mexico. There is also strong public opposition to ISDS.

Democrats in particular, although strongly pro-business, frequently depend on the support of trade unions at election time. The anti-TTIP campaign in the US aims to pressurise Democrats in the House of Representatives. Democrats have 188 seats to the Republicans’ 246. But many Republicans on the right of the party also oppose TTIP and might be unwilling to give Obama any special powers.

The Senate had already passed, by a slim majority, a bill giving Obama Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), the fast-track power he wanted to sign trade treaties. That bill also included a special measure known as Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA). TAA would mean that any worker who lost their job as a result of TTIP or TPP would receive assistance in the form of welfare, re-training or a new job. For the President to put TPA into law, it was also necessary for the House of Representatives to vote for this bill. On 14 June the House did just that. But then, by an odd twist, it voted against TAA. 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. It’s clear that they voted against TAA as a way of blocking fast-track. 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.’

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. There were a number of options 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 TAA and hope to get it passed in both parts of Congress.

According to the Huffington Post on 16 June:
‘For now, House Republican leaders simply don’t have the votes to pass the trade package and need more time to find them. They plan to take a procedural vote on Tuesday to give themselves until July 30 to come up with a way forward.’

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. By 30 July in Washington, House Republicans will try to figure out how to get TPA through the House if most of the Democrats are still opposing TAA.

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.

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, on 10 June, published 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 and, 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.

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