With the spectre of an EU referendum hanging over British politics and terror once again stalking the continent, all of which only briefly deflects attention away from the running sore that is Greece’s battle to stay in the Eurozone, you might think that Europe had plenty enough to keep itself occupied with.
Well no actually, because for the past couple of years the TTIP deal has been quietly being negotiated behind closed doors. For the uninitiated, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership or TTIP (pronounced TEE-tip) is an agreement between the EU and the USA which aims to remove certain trade barriers between the two blocs, thus boosting economies on either side of the Atlantic.
One of the ways in which they propose to do this is by normalising legislation, mainly around safety standards, to prevent companies having to spend money trying to meet different criteria for different markets (although Volkswagen weren’t really meeting either standard anyway). So far so logical, until you realise that the two sides currently differ greatly in some areas and that when regulations do differ, it won’t always be the looser ones which are tightened up, indeed the more stringent laws may be relaxed.
One of the main areas in which those standards currently differ is the world of food and pharmaceuticals. With our open window into their culture and their rough approximation of the English language, it’s often easy to forget just how different a country the USA is to our own. On the one hand America bans Kinder eggs in case children mistake the toys for food but on the other they use 82 pesticides which are banned in the EU whilst 90% of American soya, corn and cotton crops are GM. In America cows are routinely injected with growth hormones, with the resultant beef banned in the EU, and chicken carcasses are washed with chlorinated water, again, a practise banned on this side of the pond. Whether any of these methods should actually worry you is a story for another time, but that fact that neither you nor your government will be able to stop it once the deal is done definitely should.
If by now this is all starting to sound pretty concerning, the more conscientious among you might well be thinking about reading up on the negotiations to better inform yourselves as to what’s happening. Well good luck with that. Only “consolidated texts”, i.e. agreed post-negotiation positions are available for reading, only to people who are MEPs and initially only at special “reading rooms” in the European Parliament. This potentially left Cypriot MEPs in today’s hyperconnected world facing the ridiculous situation of a 7,000 km round trip from Nicosia to Brussels and back just to read what their own organisation was doing. Extra “reading rooms” have since opened in US embassies in EU countries but – if you’ll allow us to mix metaphors for a moment – that really is just scratching the tip of the iceberg in terms of openness. In fact as the Titanic found out the hard way, just scratching the tip of the iceberg can lead to a lot more openness than this. Not content with keeping discussions between themselves a secret, how are the two sides when it comes to disclosing what external lobbyists are asking of them? Not much better judging by this comically redacted document from British American Tobacco.
And if you needed any convincing that British American Tobacco or Philip Morris, who are also lobbying the TTIP negotiators, are hiding anything other than good intentions behind those pages of black highlighter, watch their names crop up in John Oliver’s explanation of the shitstorm they kicked up that time Australia introduced plain cigarette packaging.
The final issue is one which Oliver touched on there, that of companies suing governments. TTIP aims to introduce something called Investor-State Dispute Settlements, whose acronym is ISDS, one third more evil than IDS, but only three quarters of the evil of ISIS. The ISDS essentially sets up a corporate court where businesses could sue governments if legislation, for example putting health warnings on tobacco, the phasing out nuclear power plants or the raising of the minimum wage, hurt their profits.
This is also the main cause for concern for supporters of the NHS who believe that the ISDS provisions could allow private companies to sue the government if it attempted to bring any outsourced areas back into public hands, essentially exposing the service to full-scale privatization.
Some people are inherently less concerned about the whole thing, arguing safety will not be impacted. Others point to the fact that France for example has already had their arts industry protected from the ISDS and that the NHS could be similarly exempt even though that doesn’t seem to have happened yet. The EU’s Trade Commissioner has said she will work to address citizens’ concerns, but even she may be up against it. For what it’s worth the EU has felt concerned enough about the negative press the deal has generated to produce a handy pamphlet attempting to debunk most of the points we’ve just made. Some of the language seems less than reassuring, the fact we won’t be “forced” to import hormone-injected beef doesn’t preclude the possibility that it would still be allowed. For the moment, what the EU seems to be saying about the deal is “C’mon… just the TTIP”.
It’s all oddly reminiscent of the salami tactics – that is, slice by slice – as enunciated in a different context by the ever relevant Yes, Prime Minister.
If that seems too much like ancient history, cast your mind back to the turn of the century. When tuition fees were first introduced to England in 1998, ministers at the time said they would only be £1,000. Before long they had tripled to £3,000. When the coalition government came to power in 2010 they were raised again, despite the Lib Dems having vowed not to do so. We were told that they would increase to £6,000 or £9,000 in only the most special of cases. Suddenly, every university – much like the overparented Generation Y-ers attending them – thought they were special and £9,000 became the norm. Nick Clegg’s act of YouTube contrition hardly made up for the betrayal and his party suffered accordingly at the 2015 general election.
Will TTIP pan out the same way in the years ahead? It’s hard to believe otherwise based on past performances. One could draw parallels with negotiations surrounding the Maastricht treaty, in which Britain was afforded opt-outs from the chapters on social policy and the adoption of the Euro, provisions which have essentially been upheld. But they were negotiations between national governments, under pressure from the public and the press to achieve something tangible from one of the most controversial issues of the day. Now, as Britain gears up to re-fight the battles of twenty years ago, all eyes will be on our tussle with Europe rather than the deals being done by secretive committees behind closed doors.
It’s perhaps time to use the EU for the one thing it can do well – block bargaining – and put pressure on all those involved to get the best deal possible, rather than selling their citizens’ way of life for a few extra pounds, euros, kronor or lei.