Anti-TTIP graffiti in Malmö, Sweden. The Swedish text in the speech bubble reads, “Regulations are not trade barriers, they protect our hard-won democratic rights”
In recent years, the Obama administration has been trying to promote two of the largest trade agreements in modern history. Initially the product of negotiations between New Zealand, Singapore, Chile and Brunei in 2005, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) evolved into the brainchild of the US when it joined on in 2008. Under American influence, the TPP has ballooned to involve 12 countries representing forty percent of the world’s GDP. In 2013, the European Union – responsible for nearly a quarter of global GDP – began negotiating a complementary treaty with the US called the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). According to the United States Trade Representative, these agreements aim to increase economic liberalization between signatory members. Beneath the surface, however, the TPP and TTIP have a number of highly problematic provisions.
Kept Under Wraps
Supporters of transparency have been concerned with the fact that the TPP and TTIP were drafted in secrecy. Of equal concern are the strict terms of access required to read their provisions. Ailsa Chang from NPR reported that if US Senators want to read over the trade deal, they have to:
“…surrender their cell phones and other mobile devices. Any notes taken inside the room must be left in the room. … Members of Congress can’t ask outside industry experts or lawyers to analyze the language. They can’t talk to the public about what they read. And [US Senator Sherrod] Brown says there’s no computer inside the secret room to look something up when there’s confusion. You just consult the USTR official.”
As Senator Brown points out, “There is more access in most cases to CIA and Defense Department and Iran sanctions documents … than for this trade agreement.” A similar setup is in place for the TTIP, which can currently be accessed only in a “secure reading room” in Brussels. Appallingly, corporations are not subject to the same treatment. The emphasis on maintaining such high levels of secrecy for something as seemingly mundane as a trade deal is quite suspicious. Such actions raise concerns as to what the treaties will force members to do, which have led some countries to question their involvement. France, for example, threatened to walk away in September due to concerns over the lack of transparency and over-representation of American interests.
Despite the US and EU’s efforts to keep the treaties secret, several controversial parts of the agreements have been made public by the whistleblower organization, Wikileaks. The group’s leader, Julian Assange, justified the leaks by stating, “It is for the public, Congress and the Internet to consider the Trans-Pacific Partnership on its merits and decide whether it should sink or swim.” Assange is right – in a democratic society, government must look to the people for approval, rather than to special interest groups or corporations, which are positioned to gain the most from these treaties.
We, the Corporations
Critics of the TPP and TTIP, including several members of Congress, have spoken out on how both treaties may weaken state sovereignty in favour of corporate interests. The TPP and TTIP both have sections on investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) – a mechanism that allows corporations to sue sovereign states, already included in other free-trade agreements such as NAFTA. The ISDS clause in NAFTA, for example, has forced Canada to overturn environmental protection laws as well as resource management strategies, all because they pose a threat to corporate profits. The same mechanism will affect over two dozen countries through the TPP and TTIP. Granting companies the power to sue countries for the sake of protecting their bottom line is a mistake that will cost countries hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars and potentially subvert individual state sovereignty while lining the pockets of corporations. Thankfully, there are some politicians who see the proposed ISDS clause in TPP for what it really is. As US Senator Elizabeth Warren argues in the Washington Post:
“Conservatives who believe in U.S. sovereignty should be outraged that ISDS would shift power from American courts, whose authority is derived from our Constitution, to unaccountable international tribunals. Libertarians should be offended that ISDS effectively would offer a free taxpayer subsidy to countries with weak legal systems. And progressives should oppose ISDS because it would allow big multinationals to weaken labour and environmental rules.”
While Warren mainly discusses how this would affect the United States, such dispute-settlement mechanisms have already been used to great effect against other countries. When Australia and Uruguay implemented stricter anti-smoking regulations, tobacco giant Philip Morris International sued both countries in 2010 and 2014 on the grounds that such regulations would lower its profits. ISDS clauses also allowed a French company to sue Egypt after it raised its minimum wage, and empowered a Swedish utility company to sue Germany after the government started closing down its nuclear reactors in response to the Fukushima disaster. As the most sued developed country in the world, Canada has been the target of nearly three dozen ISDS disputes due to the terms embedded within NAFTA. The Canadian government has been forced to pay $170 million in damages so far after losing or settling in court. From these examples, it is clear that ISDS clauses, as currently proposed in the TPP and TTIP, will only bolster the power of corporations, trampling taxpayers and allowing multinationals to sue governments for better profit margins.
The All-Accessing Eye
The first leaked chapter of the TPP was its intellectual property section. It has been one of the major sources of concern for proponents of privacy, such as Edward Snowden – responsible for exposing a massive US surveillance program against American citizens and allied countries. From his Twitter account, Snowden brought attention to a Wikileaks report, which discovered that under new TPP regulations, pharmaceutical companies would obtain monopoly rights over their patents.
By giving pharmaceutical companies the ability to block generic versions of their drugs and undermine governmental pricing regulations, this legislation would “cost lives.” In preventing people from obtaining affordable drugs, these trade agreements would serve corporations rather than the public. Julian Assange argues:
“If instituted, the TPP’s [Intellectual Property] regime would trample over individual rights and free expression, as well as ride roughshod over the intellectual and creative commons. If you read, write, publish, think, listen, dance, sing or invent; if you farm or consume food; if you’re ill now or might one day be ill, the TPP has you in its crosshairs.”
Assange is right to think so. But stronger drug patent protections are only the start — these agreements also intend to implement stronger copyright protection laws, which would force internet service providers to hand over customers’ personal information in alleged instances of copyright infringement — all without evidence or probable cause. In addition, the agreement would compromise free speech online, threaten personal privacy by forcing cross-border information exchange, and institute harsh criminal penalties for file sharing.
Just the Tip of an Iceberg
The truly scary part about the TPP and TTIP is that these criticisms concern only what is known about the deals so far. Much more is still hidden from the public. If one is to claim that the impact of these agreements is being blown out of proportion, consider the position held by EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström, responsible for determining Europe’s trade policies. When asked why she continues to promote these controversial agreements despite public opposition, she responded, “I do not take my mandate from the European people.” Surely, it doesn’t get scarier than that.
Michal Jastrzebski is a graduate of the University of Toronto with an Honours Bachelors of Arts in Political Science and History.