Will transparency mean the shine comes off the EU-US trade deal?
Trade negotiators from the European Commission’s DG Trade and the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) sat down together in Washington DC on Monday to start thrashing out an EU-US trade deal known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP. Hopes are high for the deal, as some people claim it could add 1% to the growth rate (it may not sound much, but it would double the optimistic 0.9% growth rate the IMF has predicted for the UK this year.)
Some over-optimistic souls reckon the deal could be agreed within two years, which would be breakneck speed in the world of world trade negotiations. But it’s going to be difficult knowing how well the talks are going, because they are shrouded in secrecy. Officials maintain that this is to prevent difficulty negotiations being blown off course by public opinion or debate (which won’t stop the negotiators flooding the airwaves with spin and rumour for months to come as they jockey for advantage). But there may be darker motives: it may be that the Government doesn’t want people to find out what’s being negotiated away behind their backs.
Ken Clarke MP, the Europhile Minister without Portfolio, has been given the job of overseeing UK involvement in the TTIP negotiations, despite Lord Green being the actual Trade Minister, and trade agreements being an EU competence over which the UK has limited say. That’s pretty much what he told the first meeting on Monday night of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the TTIP. In avuncular mood, Ken suggested that speed was necessary for the trade deal to reach a conclusion before ‘special interests’ started lobbying for exclusions, exemptions and so on. He also suggested that ‘reform’ was only possible when people are ‘poor and scared’, the little charmer (presumably that’s why reforming the City of London is so devilishly difficult?)
But, as the TUC Executive Committee heard on Tuesday morning, and AFLCIO trade specialist Celeste Drake told journalists in the US, there is a lot to worry about in the negotiations – especially the future of the NHS, public procurement preferences, finance sector regulation and workers’ rights, not to mention GM food and other environmental standards.
The TUC thinks that ignoring the losers that the TTIP will produce, or pretending there won’t be any, is a recipe for disaster, and could swamp the good that a deal could do. The downsides of the deal need to be minimised or remedied. And the only way to make sure that happens is to make the process as open and democratic as possible, as the ETUC has demanded. Ken Clarke may wish to keep prying eyes away from the trade negotiations, but unions must make sure people know what’s being done in their name, and we will be looking to MPs and MEPs to ensure this is one trade deal done in the interests of the people, not the bosses. Expect to hear a lot more about the TTIP from the TUC.