Debate is hotting up over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the notorious trade deal cooked up in secret between the EU and the United States.
With the official talks already in trouble, TTIP is now coming under renewed scrutiny from parliamentarians on both sides of the Atlantic.
In a series of forthcoming votes, the European Parliament and US Congress are turning their attention to an agreement that is becoming more toxic with every passing day.
The TTIP negotiations were launched in 2013, and there are several years before any deal could come up for final ratification.
Yet the new European Parliament elected last year is now set to hold its first plenary vote on an interim TTIP resolution during the week of 8 June, with a preliminary vote due to take place in the parliament’s trade committee as soon as this Thursday.
The schedule could still slip, given the level of controversy surrounding the resolution; the timetable has been set back once already by the blizzard of 898 amendments that were entered by other parliamentary committees in protest at the first draft.
As is now widely recognized, TTIP is not a traditional trade agreement aimed at reducing border tariffs, which are already at minimal levels between the EU and USA.
Instead, TTIP focuses on dismantling the ‘barriers’ to corporate profit that exist behind the border, namely the social standards, labour rights and environmental regulations that we hold most dear.
The impacts will be socially and ecologically disastrous: official estimates predict TTIP will cost at least one million jobs in the EU and US combined, while the resulting surge in US shale gas exports to Europe will lock us in to fossil fuel dependency for decades.
Most outrageously, TTIP is set to grant US corporations the new power to bypass domestic courts and sue European governments for potential loss of profits in a parallel judicial system available to them alone.
This so-called ‘investor-state dispute settlement’ mechanism (ISDS) would allow US companies the opportunity to demand compensation wherever they felt that their ‘legitimate expectations’ had been upset by the passage of new laws or regulations.
According to the official British government’s assessment commissioned from the London School of Economics at the beginning of the TTIP negotiations, taxpayers will be forced to pay billions if the new power is approved.
For these and many other reasons, popular opposition to TTIP is running at unprecedented levels.
The European Citizens’ Initiative against TTIP has secured close to two million signatures from across Europe in just eight months. The EU’s own public consultation on ISDS saw a record 150,000 responses, all but a tiny handful rejecting the idea of granting transnational corporations this new power. The message from the European people is loud and clear.
Yet the unelected bureaucrats of the European Commission are oblivious.
I met with Cecilia Malmström, the EU Trade Commissioner responsible for TTIP, in her private office earlier this year and asked her whether she was bothered that the people of Europe were up in arms against her.
Her response came back icily: ‘I do not take my mandate from the European people.’
Malmström’s handling of the ISDS question reveals all too clearly her contempt for democratic legitimacy.
Rather than respect the public’s rejection of her plans, the Trade Commissioner is determined to press ahead with a ‘new and improved’ version of ISDS, which singularly fails to address the fundamental issue raised in the consultation: why would we wish to give US corporations something that Malmström herself has characterized as a ‘VIP line to justice’?
As one MEP remarked caustically on being shown the new proposal: put lipstick on a pig, it’s still a pig.
Yet some parliamentarians are all too happy to go along with the fiction that Malmström’s reforms have answered the critics.
For most liberal and conservative MEPs, support for TTIP seems to transcend any belief in democracy or national sovereignty.
For many social democratic MEPs, including Labour parties from across the continent, the desire to be seen as trusted allies in the neoliberal capitalist programme overrides any commitment to the European social model they might once have held.
Small wonder that they find themselves increasingly out of favour with European electorates.
If the European Parliament passes a resolution that is supportive of TTIP in the face of such unprecedented public opposition, it will open up a new phase in our understanding of the institutions of the EU.
While the Commission has long been known to be unaccountable, and the Council of Ministers is too remote to influence, the Parliament is at some level supposed to represent the will of the European people.
That argument will dissolve into thin air if MEPs vote against the public mood on TTIP. As Britain prepares for its forthcoming referendum on EU membership, people are unlikely to forget or forgive such a momentous betrayal.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, Congress is going through its own TTIP contractions. The US debate centres on the special ‘fast track’ powers that President Obama needs to secure if he is to be allowed to negotiate TTIP to its conclusion without referring every line to Congress for approval.
The bill preparing this Trade Promotion Authority has just managed to stutter its way through the Senate, but there are huge doubts that it will pass the House of Representatives – not least because the same power would also apply to the parallel Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that the USA is negotiating with Asian and Latin American nations, which is seen as an even greater threat than TTIP.
Obama will not risk a vote that he might lose, and the clock is ticking on his presidency. Time is not on his side.
Popular resistance is making the passage of such legislation increasingly implausible, on both sides of the Atlantic.
The global day of action held on 18 April this year saw 750 actions in protest at the new wave of free trade deals that threaten to give transnational corporations new powers over society throughout the world.
Just as previous attempts to bring in such powers were successfully defeated in the 1990s and 2000s, TTIP is sure to be defeated too. The only question for EU and US parliamentarians is how many of them will go down with it.
John Hilary is Executive Director of War on Want. His introductory guide to TTIP, available in a dozen European languages, has now been republished in an updated 2015 edition, and can be freely downloaded from waronwant.org/ttip.