How it will affect our daily life and why everybody should know about it

A simple and innocuous sounding acronym – TTIP or Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership is enough to make one’s eyes glaze over. Yet this trade deal between the European Union and the United States will eventually affect our daily lives, the food that we eat, our environment and ultimately our democratic processes and sovereignty as a nation. It’s the biggest trade deal ever, and yet most of the European public is not aware of it.

Negotiations between the EU and the United States on a transatlantic trade started way back in July 2013. Regulatory convergence has since been the main focus of decision-makers on both sides of the Atlantic with an understanding that tackling regulatory obstacles to trade will resolve the current economic and financial crises, based on the assumption that it will boost growth and create jobs.

During a recent seminar organised by Friends of the Earth Europe in Brussels, NGOs from different sectors shared their concerns about such a convergence, since it is likely to challenge long-established environmental, health and consumer rights and regulations protecting citizens on both sides of the Atlantic as if they were burdens. The suggestion is that these should be sacrificed for, yet unproven and contested, economic benefits.

These concerns should not be taken lightly since the proposed deal could pose a serious threat to environmental and social protection in Europe. Sectors of industry have long claimed that European standards designed to protect human health, the environment and social wellbeing are barriers to trade. Their demands for the harmonisation of standards will reduce protection for the environment and expose individuals to greater health, safety and other risks. This will happen since for example the EU would have to accept US imports regardless of their compliance with EU regulations, and vice-versa.

This is not merely speculation. The US has previously challenged European restrictions on imports of hormone-treated beef and poultry washed in chlorine. Oil companies are lobbying against EU plans to protect the climate by limiting access to the EU for oil from dirty tar sands. Food labelling requirements, providing consumer information about what is in food (including genetically modified ingredients) and where it comes from, are seen as an extra cost and criticised as a barrier to trade. Similarly, the already weak sustainability criteria applied by the European Union on biofuels could be threatened as US corn and soy producers push for a share of the European market. Local and national bans on shale gas will be at risk due to TTIP.

Introducing lower standards to meet the demands of industry effectively undermines the precautionary approach, which requires companies to ensure new technologies are safe and which provides a key legal cornerstone of European environmental protection. Reducing requirements for traceability and accountability will also threaten the fundamental principle that the polluter pays. Changes to standards imposed through a binding trade deal undermine the ability of states to act democratically in response to national public concerns.

Furthermore, if food, consumer rights and the environment are not enough reason for concern, one of the biggest threats looming over states sovereign right to regulate could well come from the obscure investor-to-state dispute settlement mechanism – also known, even more innocuously, as ISDS.

The impact that ISDS provisions can have on environmental and citizens safeguards relates partly to the broad definition of investment used. An investment can include regulatory permits and licences, procurement contracts, or concessions to use natural resources. Therefore states that restrict use of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), impose pollution controls or technology bans, or plan to close polluting power plants could be subject to investors claims.

Malta’s sovereign right to regulate in favour of protecting citizens’ rights and wellbeing will be overshadowed by ISDS. The cases are not heard in Maltese or European courts but by a special tribunal made up of appointed arbitrators from the world of corporate law.  Such litigations will be lengthy and prohibitively costly, offering even the most environmentally conscious of governments a justification to claim that the country cannot afford such expenses when so many odds are stacked against it. Such mechanisms do already exist in other treaties and are currently being used by corporations to sue governments around the world. In Quebec for instance, DOW Chemicals has legally challenged the government after banning the use of harmful pesticides. Other high profile examples include tobacco giant Philip Morris suing Uruguay for putting a health warning on cigarette packages and Swedish energy company Vattenfall suing the German government for phasing out nuclear energy.

But it doesn’t stop here either. So far, nobody has seen any of the text and the European Commission has argued that secrecy in this process is inevitable because this is a matter of international relations. If these negotiations are intended to affect domestic regulations, standards and safeguards on each side, then citizens have the right to know what is being put on the table, and how this is being negotiated.

An EU-US trade deal will only be acceptable if it builds a better future for people and the environment. This deal must definitely not lead to a weaker protection for the environment and citizens. It must not give corporations more rights than citizens. If it does, it should be swiftly rejected by the European Commission and our national governments. And finally, is our government and both current and prospective MEPs aware of these threats to our national sovereignty and quality of life?

This article appeared on the Sunday Times of Malta (23rd March 2014) - http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20140323/opinion/The-biggest-trade-deal-in-the-world.511763

Martin Galea De Giovanni is Chairperson of Friends of the Earth Malta – a member of Friends of the Earth International, with national groups in more than 75 countries campaigning for solutions to environmental problems - www.foemalta.org

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