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OPINION: If we knew what was in the TTIP deal, would we vote for it?

IT’S not very often that a deal is proposed that has bi-partisan support in both the for and against camps. The controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP deal, is something with bi-partisan support on the European Parliament and in the US Senate. Indeed, in the USA, it has Republican Party members agreeing with Democrat President Obama, for perhaps the first time in about three years. But it also has a bi-partisan opposition. In Europe, MEP’s from a variety of left and right leaning parties deliberately disrupted and eventually cancelled a vote on the topic last week. In the USA, Democrats are lining up to criticise Obama’s proposed deal, and others like it, and have so far managed to hinder its progress through the US democratic system. But while the deal has caused a wide variety of political confusion and a big argument in activist circles, its questionable how much the general public is aware of the deal, or what is proposed within it. That awareness might be by design. Negotiations have been held in secret, with US Senators having previously complained that secrecy control means they have to be supervised when reading passages of the bill. Although bits and pieces throughout its debating period have been leaked by WikiLeaks, and the mainstream media has recently upped articles on it, the sense is that the public is not entirely aware of what is being discussed.

In many cases, the noises surrounding TTIP have preceded the content of the actual deal, and what is being discussed. So what is the TTIP deal aiming to achieve, and what is in it that has people riled? In recent years, the United States has been attempting to bring the world’s trade agreements to its playing fields. This has been spotted with a similar deal involving China and Japan known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, which is the deal that has been attracting major attention in the US. A similar deal already discussed and signed covers South and Central America, while another deal, known as TISA, is also in negotiation to rubber-stamp all these individual deals into a global framework. The publicly spouted theory by proponents is that these deals are intended to loosen trading regulations for corporations and big businesses in a variety of global sectors. The thinking behind is an increase in jobs, economic boosts, and a GDP increase. But critics are not entirely buying that line, and there’s a lot of them. Nearly three million people across the EU have signed a petition trying to block the deal, while noted politicians on both sides of the Atlantic are opposed. Indeed, behind last week’s delay to the EU votes were MEP’s from UKIP, while politicians from left-wing European parties have also been involved in the disruption process.

The biggest red-flag for those opposed is the Investor-State Dispute Settlement clause, or ISDS. This clause is intended to allow investors and businesses to file lawsuits against countries if they feel legislation by sovereign states has impacted their profits, but goes further, with some critics claiming this rendition of ISDS means the state has to stomach the costs regardless, and corporate lawyers in the pay-pocket of big companies can make the rulings.

Trade agreements elsewhere means companies can sue countries anyway. The famous example is that of Phillip Morris International, who own the Marlboro tobacco brand, sued Australia in 2011 in response to Australia’s move to put all cigarettes in plain packaging. A court ruled Australia won and PMI had to be pay costs, but the company is carrying on, with the corporation currently in a legal battle with the government of Uruguay after they tried to put health warnings on packets for the first time.

The Uruguay case is widely seen as a test case for ISDS, with the tobacco industry’s lawsuit coming through a trade deal between Switzerland – where PMI are based – and Uruguay that includes such a clause. As pointed out by satirist John Oliver back in February, a similar threat of action has also been used to dissuade the small African nation of Togo from putting warnings on cigarette packets altogether.

Last year, the British government insisted ISDS was necessary to convince foreign investors to invest in Britain. Exactly who they’re trying to convince with such a statement remains a mystery, and not one we seem any nearer to knowing. The only thing that remains known is David Cameron remains for it, although as Labour were as well ahead of the election, there wasn’t really much choice from the two main parties on it. But while that’s a problem, it’s not the only one. The multiple layers of secrecy are extremely disconcerting, and this has allowed speculation to take over the debate. But leaked pages of the TPP deal sourced and uploaded by WikiLeaks revealed most of the discussions did not involve trade, even though this is advertised as the key component of the entire thing.

Another big red flag is that there is a lot of regulation weakening involved. Proponents have denied this, and it could be useful if such a deal was designed to help bring the USA up to stronger regulations on things like food safety, financial regulation and the environment. The fear however is the reverse, and that instead, regulation is being weakened. The particular fear is environmental regulation, with leaked pages suggesting it will be left weaker by these deals.

All of which begs the question – why is the world’s general public being shut out?

These deals affect everybody on Earth, and include changes to global legislation that will affect everything from environmental regulation to food safety, the availability of public health, financial regulations and the question of the relationship between big multi-nationals and sovereign nations. Yet all of the negotiations have been conducted behind closed doors, and were it not for leaking data through WikiLeaks or activist groups like 38Degrees, the chances are we might not have known anything at all. It’s one thing to ask MEP’s, Senators, Representatives, MP’s, everyone for their input into the deal to voice the views of the people, but why is it that the political class – including those with corporate sponsors and lobbyists – are calling the shots? A deal with such global ramifications for the next decades should be given more public input, more public exposure, and a chance for people across the planet to be given a greater say in its direction. After all, the wrong deal leaves the public exposed to the ramifications. In one respect, it is perhaps a sign of the times that people do not trust politicians with what’s going on that a greater interest has been taking in this than most of the other activities undertaken by the European Parliament. But a lot has to be done to bring increasingly irritated people on side, otherwise the deal will either be derailed or go through in a botched format.

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