Should you be worried about TTIP?

JURGEN BALZAN met United States official Julieta Valls Noyes to ask whether the much-maligned and secretive Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership talks were a leap in the dark for EU member states and their public services

A high-ranking US government official this week quashed fears that the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) talks would end up lowering social and environmental standards currently in place in the EU.

Echoing United States President Barack Obama, Julieta Valls Noyes – Deputy Assistant Secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs – called on detractors to wait until the deal is concluded before engaging in “speculations”.

But despite her assurances, the secretive nature of the TTIP talks between the European Commission and the US has enraged critics. And this week, they scored an important victory following the EU Council’s decision to publish the EU negotiating directives for the on-going negotiations.

TTIP wants to reduce regulatory barriers to trade for big business. Critics feared that the deal would spell disaster in areas such as food safety law, environmental legislation, banking regulations and the sovereign powers of individual states.

But during a round-table discussion held by the United States embassy on Thursday, Noyes claimed such fears are “absolutely false”.

“President Obama has zero interest in eliminating consumer, environment and labour rights and he has declared that he would not sign the deal if consumer safety or environmental standards are relaxed,” she said.

Describing the deal as a “21st century trade agreement”, Noyes said that Malta and the EU would benefit from unprecedented trade opportunities.

“The deal will act as a catalyst for trade liberalisation,” she stressed, adding that TTIP will especially benefit SMEs by opening up an 800 million strong market and “facilitate” exports by making trade “easier, faster and more simple.”

Critics say that the TTIP’s biggest threat is the introduction of Investor-State Dispute Settlements (ISDS), allowing companies to sue countries if government policies and court decisions cause a loss of profits.

This could lead to unelected multinationals dictating the policies of democratically elected governments and overturning laws and regulations which protect consumers and the environment.  

However, while failing to categorically deny such accusations, Noyes played them down by insisting that “the deal only aims at harmonising standards and regulations”.

While insisting that the deal would be vetted and approved by the European Parliament and the US Senate, she added “it’s difficult to say what the deal will include before it is concluded.”

Despite claims by US and EU officials that the TTIP process has involved civil society, detractors say that the agenda has been set by big multinationals, with documents obtained through a freedom of information request by the Corporate Europe Observatory showing that over 93% of preparatory meetings in Brussels were held with business lobbyists while industry pressure groups made up 85% of seats in similar meetings in Washington.

Despite Noyes’ optimism, critics in Malta and abroad view the ongoing negotiations with a healthy dose of scepticism and maintain that the deal will wreak havoc in the social and environmental spheres.

Various European academics and NGOs view the TTIP process as an attempt to impose an Americanized ‘one-size fits all’ neo-liberal model on Europe to the detriment of social, environmental and economic standards and rights.

Sociologist and Zminijietna activist Michael Briguglio said that from the information available, the harmonisation, liberalisation and privatisation of various sectors will mean that trade principles will come before social and environmental standards.

“This promises to have a negative effect on workers’ rights, environmental protection, food safety, universally accessible public services and standards which we are used to in the EU and in Malta.”

He told MaltaToday that “in the name of so-called ‘free trade’, multinational corporations will have the power to take governments to arbitration tribunals, bypassing national and European courts, and henceforth bypassing the democratic process.”

Asked what is the alternative to the neo-liberal agreement, Briguglio said “before proceeding, the TTIP should be subjected to a comprehensive impact assessment. It should be subject to democratic discussion in the European and national parliaments and should be subject to a referendum. Any trade deal involving the EU should not take place at the detriment of national and European democratic processes, and should not result in the lowering of regulatory standards in the social and environmental fields.”

Some of the TTIP’s staunchest critics have been the Greens on both sides of the Atlantic and in comments to MaltaToday, Alternattiva Demokratika chairperson Arnold Cassola said “we Greens are fighting not to have our high environmental and health standards lowered by this treaty”.

Although the EU has now made its mandate public, Cassola said that “if the EU is truly committed to transparency on TTIP, the Commission must now grant access to the negotiating documents since the devil is in the detail and it is only by scrutinising the detail in these negotiating documents that those not directly involved in the negotiations can know where these devils lie.”

He added that if an agreement were to be reached on the current text, private companies would have the power to ask for arbitration by experts in the sector over disputes with national governments.

“We all know what power industrial lobbies have to influence certain experts. For example, the tobacco industry is already asking the Australian government for hundreds of millions in compensation because the Australian government wants to safeguard the health of tobacco smokers by indicating the risks.”

Moreover, the Green Party chairperson said, EU member states could be obliged to apply the US minimum “which means allowing the bleaching of chicken in chlorine before becoming a chicken burger, the injection of antibiotics in bovines before becoming a hamburger and airline flights operating all night, not allowing a rest period for residents during the night.”

The criticism resonated in a news conference organised by the Front Against TTIP (Malta) who joined a global call of action “against the proposed TTIP, as it threatens workers’ rights, environmental protection, consumer rights and public services.”

The press conference held yesterday was originally planned to take place at Dar l-Ewropa, the European Commission’s representation in Valletta, however the coalition of civil society organisations was prohibited from holding a public dialogue at the premises.

“We are baffled that Europe House, which has hosted a wide range of events related to EU policy, is prohibiting a civil society coalition from discussing the EU’s proposed trade and investment partnership with the USA,” they said.

What’s at stake?

Public services
Critics claim public services in Europe like health would be vulnerable to attempts by private healthcare providers, to privatise services. Education and water services could also fall prey to US companies, but both EU and US officials claimed that public services will be kept out of the treaty.

Agriculture and GMOs
US rules on food are less stricter than the EU’s: 70% of all processed foods sold in US supermarkets containing genetically modified ingredients. By contrast, the EU allows virtually no GM foods. The TTIP is believed will harmonise these rules.

Environmental safety
In Europe, companies must prove that products are safe before putting them on the market while in the US substances can be used until proven unsafe. The EU currently bans 1,200 substances from use in cosmetics, the US just 12.

Public funds
Eliminating customs tariffs under TTIP would cost the EU budget €2.6 billion a year.

Reduction of trade between EU member states 
TTIP will reduce trade between EU countries by up to 30% as EU countries’ exports won’t be able to compete with increased levels of cheap imports from the US.

The investor-to-state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanism could lead to governments abstaining from rules that go against multinationals’ interests, for fear of being sued. There are around 500 similar cases of businesses versus nations going on around the world at the moment and they are all taking place before ‘arbitration tribunals’.