Neigh sayers

TTIP negotiators have dropped plans for shadowy offshore courts that would have given big business a big advantage. So why do critics of the controversial EU-US trade deal remain unhappy? Clare Speak reports

Hero image

Trade campaigners have slammed the European Commission’s recent proposal for reform of the most controversial part of the TTIP trade deal, saying the suggested “cosmetic” change ignores public opinion and would be “like putting lipstick on a pig”.

Meanwhile, critics say, any change to TTIP could be “irrelevant” if another secretive transatlantic trade deal goes through.

TTIP – the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – is the controversial trade deal currently being negotiated between the European Union and the US. It aims to lower the barriers to trade between the two.

There has been public outcry across the European Union over the inclusion of a mechanism that would allow multinational corporations to sue national governments in unaccountable offshore courts if they feel their profits have been negatively affected by a country’s laws.

Known as an Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) mechanism, it has been under review by the European Commission after 97 per cent of respondents to its consultation rejected the inclusion of the mechanism in TTIP outright.

But the European Commission failed to satisfy protesters with its recent proposal to replace the hugely unpopular mechanism with a permanent court system, which it says would make ISDS more transparent and allow for appeals.

“With our proposals for a new Investment Court System, we are breaking new ground,” said Frans Timmermans, European Commission first vice-president. “The new Investment Court System will be composed of fully qualified judges, proceedings will be transparent, and cases will be decided on the basis of clear rules.”

Although welcoming more transparency, campaigners remain unimpressed, saying the existing national court systems on both sides of the Atlantic are capable of dealing with disputes.

“This alternative proposal is essentially a PR exercise to get around the enormous controversy and opposition that has been generated by ISDS,” Nick Dearden, director of campaign group Global Justice Now, told Big Issue North.

“The Commission can try to put lipstick on a pig, but this new proposal doesn’t change the fundamental problem of giving corporations frightening new powers at the expense of our national democracies. [European Commission trade commissioner] Cecilia Malmström has yet to give a satisfactory answer as to why our established court system is unable to deal with trade law.”

Investor-state arbitration, either in the form of ISDS or the proposed new court system, is “not necessary” in TTIP, said Natacha Cingotti, trade campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe.

Despite the new name and some reforms of the functioning of the system, Cingotti said, the proposal “reaffirms the granting of VIP rights for corporate investors without giving them any obligations that would protect citizens and the environment.”

Meanwhile, if ISDS is replaced by a slightly more transparent system within the deal, campaigners note, this will only increase the importance of another shadowy transatlantic trade deal in the eyes of corporates.

“This doesn’t change the problem of giving corporations frightening new powers.”

Largely overshadowed by the notorious TTIP, the Canada-EU CETA trade deal was quietly passed by the European Commission last year, but has not yet been ratified by member states. CETA contains the old ISDS mechanism.

“The Commission has at least admitted with this proposal that the ISDS, which is written into CETA, is unacceptable, so why haven’t they halted the ratification process?” said Dearden.

Labour MP Geraint Davies said in an email statement: “CETA… has received no scrutiny in the UK parliament, despite ushering in ISDS, because of the relationship between Canadian and American firms.”

He added that no mention of CETA is expected in the UK parliament until next year.

On 25 September, the one-year anniversary of the CETA bill being passed, Davis tabled a bill calling for more parliamentary scrutiny of international trade deals.

“I introduced the International Trade Agreement Scrutiny Bill to agitate parliamentary action and to help focus Labour on the urgent need to pull out CETA’s sharpest teeth,” Davies said.

It is thought CETA may give US-based corporations with links to Canada a way to use ISDS “by the back door.”

“If CETA goes ahead, what happens to TTIP may become irrelevant,” said Davies. “The UK parliament along with European state parliaments need to discuss and vote on this and other trade agreements, and my bill would allow scrutiny of all parts of these highly damaging agreements.”

There are some hopes among campaigners that more robust scrutiny of these deals may now be possible with the new Labour shadow cabinet in place.

The party’s new leader Jeremy Corbyn has repeatedly spoken out against TTIP, and new shadow chancellor John McDonnell spoke at an anti-TTIP rally organised by Global Justice Now as part of a day of action against the deal last week.

The group hopes to see Labour adopt complete opposition to TTIP in the coming months.

“We’ve been working with Geraint on the bill and it’s great in that it goes beyond TTIP to look at the totally undemocratic way trade deals are agreed,” Dearden said.

“We’re making trade deals with countries all the time and our elected representatives get virtually no oversight – they don’t even know a deal’s been concluded sometimes.”

But there are some doubts about how helpful the scrutiny bill could really be.

“This bill is important in that it will bring much-needed parliamentary attention to the mechanisms by which international trade and investment treaties – such as TTIP and CETA – are passed through the UK parliament,” Samuel Lowe, trade campaigner with Friends of the Earth UK, told Big Issue North.

“However, under the Lisbon Treaty the responsibility for the negotiation of international trade and investment treaties like these lies solely with the European Commission, unless permission is granted to a member state to negotiate a deal unilaterally.

“So while the UK parliament may be given an opportunity to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a deal, there is no legal mechanism in place or currently available by which it could make amendments.”

Photo: Nick Dearden of Global Justice Now with the Trojan horse that delivered three million signatures against TTIP to the European Commission

Read our interview with  Gabriel Siles-Brügge, expert on the controversial EU-US trade deal here

If you liked this article, we think you’ll enjoy these:

Interact: Responses to Neigh sayers

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.