End negotiations on EU-US free trade agreement

14 February 2014

End negotiations on EU-US free trade agreement

The free trade agreement between the EU and the US will impinge on our rules on safety, damage our social policy and erode our democracy.

SP Member of Parliament Jasper van Dijk and SP Member of the European Parliament Dennis de Jong

Supporters of the free trade agreement between the European Union and the United States - the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) - look exclusively to the economic advantages and the way in which it will facilitate competition. Not a word about the possible damage to safety regulations and social policy or the erosion of democratic control, or the inadequate information put out.

Firstly, on safety rules and social policy, the TTIP’s aim is to harmonise trade policy, which means that compromises must be agreed. The rules on seat belts in cars, to take just one example, differ in Europe and the US. Harmonisation means making concessions.

Also in the areas of food and agriculture, the pharmaceutical sector and provision of financial services the desire is to harmonise the rules. That means potentially that the EU will be forced to open its market to hormone beef, chloride chickens and shale gas. The lower standards of labour protection in the US are also being raised in the negotiations. So it’s misleading to state that our level of protection will remain unaffected.

And then we come to the resulting danger: the erosion of democracy. Will a member state still be able to introduce a complementary policy once the ‘Partnership’ is agreed? In fact, the country would the run the risk of having charges brought against it in a supranational court of law. This kind of ‘conflict resolution’ is extremely controversial and has understandably provoked a great deal of debate.

A well-known example of this kind of thing involves a complaint from Swedish energy corporation Vattenfall against the German government. When Germany took the decision, in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, to close its nuclear reactors, Vattenfall lodged its complaint. The results were not only that Germany diluted its environmental demands for the firm, but that Vattenfall made a claim for €3.7 billion in compensation for lost profits.

If this sort of conflict resolution is soon to become part of the treaty, all member states could find themselves confronted by America’s claims culture.

And then there’s the shadowy way in which information is being provided. Supporters claim that transparency is a priority, but in the national daily, NRC, of 19th December, trade minister Lilianne Ploumen said that it ‘is good that the negotiations are taking place behind closed doors.’ Furthermore, the European Commission’s information provision is always limited, and the minutes of the negotiations remain secret.

It is however known that in preparation for the negotiations some 120 meetings were held with major corporations and their lobby groups, once again behind closed doors. After all of the hue-and-cry over conflict resolution the European Commission is now organising a 'consultation' in order to hear the public’s concerns. That’s remarkable, given that supporters claim that the negotiations were already transparent.

It remains very much the question how much these consultations will deliver. It isn’t clear what will happen as a result of what those involved say. The public might express a view on the form taken by conflict resolution, but not in any event whether or not such a system is needed at all.

There’s nothing wrong with agreements to get rid of barriers to trade, but what we have here is an all-embracing treaty with far-reaching consequences for our national democratic rights. Instead of staring in blinkered fashion at the economic interests, the SP wants to see trade agreements which do not lead to a downward spiral.

That would mean the EU member states retaining space to make policy for themselves, without risk of being sued for millions. If corporations have a case, they can lay it before the national courts. The public has also a right to openness in regard to the negotiating process.

That’s why the SP is calling for the negotiations to end and for a debate within the member states over whether such a treaty is desirable. Not only in their parliaments, but also outside, by means of a consultation on the entire agreement and not merely a section of it. If it should turn out that there is no support, national parliaments can then decide how to proceed, with or without the treaty.

This opinion piece first appeared, in the original Dutch, on 14th February in the national daily De Volkskrant.

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