Our leaders need to take a step back and ask why people are so angry
The arrival of Obama in Europe will put trade policy back at the top of the political agenda, seventeen years after riots on the streets of Seattle over World Trade Organisation negotiations. However, it is not necessarily in the way our governments would like.
It follows the Dutch public’s rejection of the EU-Ukraine trade deal and rising public opposition to major trade deals with an exhausting alphabet of acronyms (TPP,TTIP,CETA,TISA,etc). As Obama enters the fray, setting off on his European TTIP tour, our leaders should take a step back and reflect on why people are so angry.
Trade is an emotive issue which finds itself at heart of the great left-right divide across the world, with accusations that trade deals stack the cards even more heavily in favour of the wealthy, and the counterclaim that trade creates jobs and is good for ordinary people.
While the creation of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) attracted a lot of attention and generated huge campaigns in the 1990s, the trade negotiations the WTO was leading effectively stalled.
Peter Mandelson, then EU Trade Commissioner saw the way to unblock negotiations was for the EU to lead on trade deals, since the EU states together form the world’s biggest economy. The subsequent Europeanisation of trade policy in the Lisbon Treaty attracted little attention.
When I was elected as an MEP I asked to meet with the trade policy experts of many NGOs, only to be told that they weren’t focusing on trade questions in their priorities, favouring climate action or other important issues. It was only with rising awareness of the TTIP negotiations that public interest in trade policy has started going back up.
On TTIP, reassurances and pledges of good faith cannot work when defiance has settled in. In fact, these messages have become counterproductive, because at the root of the problem lies the claim that TTIP is just about trade, when it is clear to everyone that it’s about much more than that.
Greater disclosure of documents won’t do the trick on its own either. TTIP may now be the most transparent trade negotiation in the history of both the EU and the UK, but the deeply held perception is that much is going on in secrecy. The only antidote is full frontal honesty.
So here goes:
Firstly, TTIP, the Canadian CETA deal and the plurilateral Trade in Services (TiSA) are three separate negotiations. Many campaigners are trying to conflate them and this is misleading. However, they do have similarities: as all three are far reaching attempts to regulate many more things affecting trade, not just duties and tariffs at the border as traditional trade deals had done, but also rules applying behind borders.
In reality, ‘technical barriers to trade’ and ‘non-tariff barriers’ (in trade-speak) have long been features of trade negotiations. What has changed is the level of ambition when it comes to aligning market conditions to liberate trade.
While this doesn’t de facto entail a negative social outcome – after all, who is against the mutual recognition of clinical testing for drugs so that risky tests are only run once rather than twice? – proponents of TTIP need to acknowledge that this is inherently a delicate process, and that the end goal is precisely to shift the balance between what is up for trade and what isn’t.
Such an important decision simply cannot be taken against the public’s will. We don’t need a referendum to know that citizens have red lines: no weakening of food safety, health or labour standards, no infringements on democratic rights or attacks on public services.
These concerns are now playing out with the backdrop of a UK referendum on membership of the EU. There are some people suggesting that we could avoid TTIP if we left the EU. The UK Government is a big proponent of TTIP and would seek a version of the deal if we did leave. But it would likely be a bad deal, certainly as I see it.
When the EU negotiates with the US their economies are of equal size, which is obviously not the case for the UK and the US. I am also certain that the transparency we have secured would disappear; there is no way that Whitehall would be as open with Westminster as the Commission is with the European Parliament.
The current situation is that MEPs have been relaying the public’s concerns and proposing changes to the Commission and national governments negotiating the deal. The ball is now in the camp of the negotiators. Until they come clean about their intentions and take on board the public’s demands, trust won’t be restored and our democracies will be increasingly crippled by public defiance.
There have been suggestions made that Obama’s visit is a charm offensive, intended to secure a quick and dirty TTIP deal in the sunset of the President’s administration. But any attempt to rush through a TTIP deal without properly responding to the public’s concerns will only increase mistrust and make the ratification process more difficult.
If the TTIP negotiators want a deal that stands a chance in the arena of public opinion, I can only recommend that substance be prioritised over speed.
Jude Kirton-Darling MEP is the European Parliamentary Labour Party lead on TTIP and European Labour’s spokesperson on tradeLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.