VOR / EIN News | 29 August, 23:13
Anti-TTIP protests take place across the UK
Thousands of people across Britain on Saturday protested against the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the EU and US. More than 600 events were scheduled, sparked by fears the proposed free trade agreement could lead to the privatisation of the NHS and other public institutions. VoR’s Louis Degenhardt investigates.
The agreement, which hopes to remove export tariffs and boost trade between the USA and the EU, has been negotiated by representatives from the two sides for over a year. But there has been mounting opposition to the trade deal ; proponents of which initially hoped it would be finalised by the end of this year, a target that looks increasingly unlikely. Some experts have questioned whether an agreement will now even be reached at all. EU Officials and US representatives have been meeting behind closed doors in an attempt to negotiate a trade deal, but it is thought that no concrete arrangement have been reached so far.
US and EU governments were extremely positive about TTIP on its initial announcement, but the proposed free trade agreement has become extremely controversial. Supporters have heralded its potential economic benefits. They argue that the resulting increased trade will trickle down, to the tune of 545 euros extra a year per household year from 2027. But considerable concerns have grown around regulatory standards that could be compromised by the agreement. Questions have also arisen over a perceived lack of transparency around the negotiations. Some activists fear the deal will favour big businesses at the expense of the wider public. There are also fears in the UK that the arbitration courts, who are expected to be included in the TTIP arrangement could compromise the NHS. Dispute settlements could potentially allow investors to sue governments if they fail to honour private contracts in public services.
Rebecca Falcon of 38 Degrees – a campaign group with over 2.5 million members – believes there are a number of misgivings to the proposals :
“We’re concerned about how this deal is entrenching privatisation into our public services. Trade deals like this make privatisation solid under international law and much harder to overturn. We’re so lucky to have the NHS ; imagine a world where private profits dictate our care – it’s a dangerous road to go down.”
While the government have told the press that the NHS will be exempt from any deal, this has done little to quell opposition. Over 100,000 people have signed a petition demanding that TTIP be either fixed or scrapped. Ken Clarke, the Minister responsible for overseeing TTIP, retired from government in this summer’s cabinet reshuffle. This means there is now no one in British government specifically working to constrain the role of these arbitration courts, which were initially set up to protect investment in unreliable states.
But Professor Simon Evenett, Professor of International Trade at the University of St Gallen in Switzerland, claims it is too early to speculate on whether such fears are justified :
“The truth is that the details really matter – you can design them in a way that would circumvent all these criticisms. The critics have a field day though because we don’t know the details that are being negotiated, and they can raise fears about potential alternatives. It makes for an easy target for critics to advance their cause, whereas the supporters have to deflect a whole list of ‘maybes’.”
He said that, given the high-profile opposition, the agreement might not even pass :
“If it does get passed it will be a watered down agreement, but by and large there’s a real question mark on whether it will get signed on anything along the lines of its initial ambitions. These deals are very difficult to conclude – a lot of companies do not want to give foreign rivals any commercial advantage without them having to make similar costs. There’s also political issues here – firstly the Snowden privacy revelations, and secondly Investor-State dispute concerns. These have poisoned the political feeling around the agreement.”
Rebecca Falcon said that secrecy surrounding negotiations was also a cause for concern :
“We’re concerned big business interests are being put before voter’s interests. The process of negotiating this deal is not transparent or democratic. Our poll shows that 42 percent of the public don’t trust the government to put the NHS above business interests – our NHS is being used as a bargaining chip.”
But Dennis Novy, a Professor of Economics at the University of Warwick, who acted as a specialist adviser to the House of Lords regarding TTIP, says that it is normal for such trade agreements to be negotiated in private :
“Transparency is typically an issue with international trade negotiations ; because parties need to thrash out a deal before they can bring it back for approval or review. If you have no secrecy you will never get ahead in making negotiations – as soon as you make them transparent the industries that are against tariff removals will cry out very loudly. It’s always an issue and it sits a bit uncomfortably with democratic government, but it’s by no means unusual.”
Professor Novy also argues that misinformation is behind much of the concerns of TTIP opponents :
“There’s a lot of confusion out there. The issue of the NHS is set on Investor-Dispute Settlements, but the mechanism has been around for decades and is already present in other agreements the UK is signed up. All it means is that if a foreign company is discriminated against then the company has the opportunity to go through these arbitration courts to try to get justice. The public debate has gotten it wrong on the fact that this does not afford foreign companies any additional rights – it is only an enforcement mechanism."
Nine thousand members of 38 Degrees will on Saturday be raising awareness about what they see as the dangers of the agreement. Academic opinion seems less concerned about the threat of TTIP to the NHS, and some have pointed out that Britain has in the past insisted on featuring the same arbitration in other free trade deals. But public pressure over the agreement seems likely to increase, with the final details of TTIP still some time away from being agreed upon between the US and EU, let alone released to the public.