Where next for EU-US trade deal, as European Parliament postpones crucial vote?

What you need to know about the future of TTIP


The European Parliament was today due to finalise a report on the controversial EU-US trade deal: the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). But yesterday the voting was postponed, and this morning a wafer-thin majority of two saw the debate itself postponed, suggesting MEPs are nowhere near ready to decide their view on TTIP.

The latest news suggests the final votes now won’t take place until September, after the traditionally long Brussels summer break. So, what is going on?

Bluntly, the postponed vote means three things.

First, campaigning by trade unions and NGOs representing mostly consumers and the environment – along with anti-globalisation protesters – has made MEPs very worried about large chunks of the proposed trade deal. That’s especially true about the bits that aren’t what most people think of as trade, like special courts for foreign investors to sue governments who interfere with their profits, known as Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) to which the European Parliamentary Labour Party is now officially opposed.

Campaigning has got the European Parliament to this stage, and can push MEPs further before the votes eventually take place, so we’re still encouraging people to write to their MEPs on the issue.

Second, the European Parliament is beginning to park its tanks on the lawn of the European Commission’s unique powers over trade agreements involving European countries. This is what was envisaged by those who inserted in the Lisbon Treaty the power for the European Parliament to block trade deals, but technically it’s still up to the European Commission to negotiate the deals on the basis of a mandate set down by member states’ trade ministers.

Now the European Parliament is flexing its muscles and effectively setting out its own mandate for the negotiations, backed up by the threat that if the Commission doesn’t deliver, the Parliament is more likely to vote the whole deal down. The powerful German trade union movement called last year for negotiations to be halted – as did the TUC’s 2014 Congress Composite Resolution – until the EU negotiating mandate had been revised to make it more people-friendly rather than pro-business.

If the European Parliament does in fact effectively change the EU negotiating mandate, that would be a major step forward in democratic accountability, although that does depend on the Parliament voting for the eventual report (eurosceptics in the Parliament want to vote everything down because they don’t believe in Europe doing trade deals – that would leave the Commission entirely unchallenged.) And then the Parliament needs to hold its nerve and stare down governments and the Commission (so no guarantees!)

Third, it means that the business lobbyists and neoliberal politicians who wanted to smuggle through the TTIP negotiations as fast and as quietly as possible – the G7 world leaders said at the weekend that they wanted a deal concluded by the end of 2015 – are unlikely to get what they wanted. Instead, all the way through to the eventual vote, campaigners will be raising the volume on the deal and its manifold shortcomings, and putting MEPs and TTIP supporters under increasing pressure.

All of this depends on the European Parliament building on and improving the draft report that came out of its international trade committee (INTA), with its carve out for public services, and its requirement that workplace rights and environmental standards should be binding and enforceable. MEPs still need to exclude ISDS and its paler alternatives; remove the ‘hybrid list’ system and use only a ‘positive list’ system to defend public services from competition and liberalisation; and ensure that TTIP does not lower regulatory protections for workers, consumers or the environment.

So the work done by progressive MEPs like the North-East’s Jude Kirton-Darling MEP (whose Amendment 27 on ISDS has been the main focus of lobbying for the past week) continues to require our support, and we need to rebut business spin and defeatist narratives that say we are losing when we aren’t. They only give comfort to our enemies, and make it less likely that activists will campaign.

We can make trade agreements work for the people rather than business interests. But we might not get much of a summer holiday.

Owen Tudor is the head of European Union and International Relations at the TUC

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