What bees can tell us about the danger of giving businesses power in trade deals
One of the elements of the forthcoming Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) that trade unions oppose is the inclusion of what are known as ‘Investor-State Dispute Settlement’ (ISDS) mechanisms. And there are lessons about ISDS mechanisms for trade negotiators and campaigners in this year’s campaign to save the bees. (There’s also an online campaign you could usefully support too – see below!)
ISDS mechanisms empower businesses from one country to take international legal action against the government of another country for alleged breaches of international trade agreements, such as for policies that allegedly discriminate against those businesses and in favour of the country’s domestic businesses. They may have a point where they prevent one country discriminating unfairly against the product of a business in another country, although that could still be covered by the dispute settlement system under the rules of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and problems can usually be addressed where the rule of law protects private individuals and corporations from arbitrary government actions.
But increasingly, corporates are using these mechanisms to challenge decisions made by democratic governments simply because they impact on their bottom line – such as Egypt’s increase in the minimum wage, or Germany’s decision to go non-nuclear. Australia has already decided to reject any future ISDS provisions in trade agreements for precisely that reason. US business lobbyists are still desperate to include them in the TTIP, and both the US government and European Commission currently agree.
Corporate Europe Observatory, a Brussels-based research and campaign group, has listed a number of cases lodged under ISDS mechanisms, but my reason for raising the issue today is more of a cautionary tale, about protecting bees from pesticides. You may have seen the successful campaign several environmental groups ran earlier this year to get certain pesticides (neonicotinoids) banned in Europe because they were killing bees. The campaign persuaded the European Union to institute a one year ban.
Two of the global pharmaceutical companies who make the banned pesticides – Bayer and Syngenta – have launched legal actions to have the ban overturned on the grounds that it is “unjustified, disproportionate and goes beyond the existing regulatory framework.” Apart from the fact that it would be fabulous if ordinary citizens could use the courts to overturn Government measures that affect them on such grounds (you know, like the Bedroom Tax, austerity or trade union restrictions contrary to ILO conventions), this is an outrageous attack on democratic decision-making by staggeringly rich and influential corporations who were unable to win the public debate despite all their wealth and power. It is also, of course, a threat to the European Union about what corporations will do if the ban is retained next year – it could, for instance, prevent future British governments from renationalising the NHS!
This is precisely the sort of legal case we will see more of if the TTIP includes an ISDS mechanism, and we should listen to the bees on this one. Take action here, to save the bees and democratic decision-making.