Trade deals behind closed doors are a threat to our democracy

We’re used to hearing Big Brother conspiracy theories from the Trotskyite with the staring eyes in the corner of the pub. But when people like the doyenne of Irish cooking, Darina Allen, are talking about “a threat to democracy” it’s time to sit up, says Victoria White.
Trade deals behind closed doors are a threat to our democracy
The EU

A series of trade agreements which the EU has negotiated in secret have the power, if passed, to start by destroying our food standards and our farming sector, and go on to destroy our hopes of containing global greenhouse gas emissions.

They will make of Europe and North America one vast single market constituting half of the world’s GDP with one set of standards set, more and more, by large corporations. They will force developing countries to play to lose by rules which they cannot influence.

She’s bonkers, you’re saying. Me and Darina Allen, then. Did you know that formal negotiations between the EU and US on their Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) concluded last month and that the agreement will be discussed tomorrow by EU Foreign Affairs Ministers? That Angela Merkel wants the deal done by the end of this year? That the EU’s trade deal with Canada, the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) which could be approved by the European Council as early as tomorrow, applies not only to Canadian companies, but also to companies with offices in Canada, such as nearly every major US corporation? That once the Council gives the go-ahead CETA can be implemented “on a provisional basis” and it will be almost impossible to disentangle it from our economy if it is ultimately rejected by the people of Europe themselves?

This is particularly galling considering 97 percent of Europeans in a public consultation rejected the controversial Investor to State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) mechanism which exists in CETA and TTIP and a range of other trade agreements. This is the mechanism which gives corporations the right to sue national governments if their business interests are negatively affected by government decisions.

ISDS mechanisms are working well for corporations worldwide. Lone Pine Resources has sued Canada for its moratorium on fracking. The Swedish energy company Vattenfall has sued Germany for phasing out nuclear power. The Philip Morris tobacco company sued Australia for the loss of its “intellectual property” when the government decided on plain packaging for cigarettes. Chevron sued the government of Ecuador because it awarded over US$9 billion in damages to indigenous people allegedly affected by the dumping of toxic sludge in the Amazon rivers. As the UK journalist George Monbiot says, ISDS mechanisms are being used all over the world “to kill regulations protecting people and the living planet.” Did I forget to mention that the governments in question can’t sue back?

No wonder Darina Allen has gone as far as to talk about “a threat to democracy.”

But the more direct threat is to the standards which we in Europe have evolved through our national and EU parliament. Forget about them if CETA, TTIP, Mercosur (the EU’s trade deal with Brazil and Argentina) come into force. These countries have lower standards for food production than we do but they’ll be able to flood our market with their foods and we won’t be able to compete. They won’t even have to explain on their labels how their foods were produced - if the chickens were was washed out with chlorine, the grains produced from genetically modified seed, the cows injected with hormones or antibiotics to affect their meat and milk production.

Darina Allen talks in terms of a risk to public health but the more immediate threat is to the livelihoods of Irish farmers, who can’t compete with the economies of massive scale in the farmlands of the US or Argentina. They shouldn’t have to, she argues, because we are producing food to a higher standard and she points out that Ireland has worked hard to promote this difference through initiatives like Origin Green. “What is the EU for”, asked the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers’ Association as they protested last week about Mercosur, “if it isn’t for supporting a viable agriculture sector in Europe?” And the higher standards here are obvious to consumers. I was shocked by the standard of the food I bought in supermarkets in the US when I was a student. A friend in the US who works in catering buys her food like a detective, sourcing from local producers and going through the labels line by line.

Being an informed consumer is all the more important in the US because you are not protected there, as you are in the EU, by the “precautionary principle” which means an additive or chemical or process can be banned if there is a risk to our health or the health of the environment. Examples are the so-called “endocrine disruptor” chemicals in food, metals, cosmetics and other products which may cause serious health issues and the insecticides which may be hastening the collapse of our bee populations.

The EU

The EU

The EU’s “precautionary principle” is relatively strong compared with that of the US but if we agree to TTIP our market will be open to goods produced without these safeguards against which EU products may struggle to compete. Already EU negotiators are inundated with industry lobbyists who want standards lowered in anticipation of TTIP. UK Green MEP Molly Scott Cato, who managed to read some of the negotiating documents, reported that 92 percent of representations came from industry lobbyists. Before she got into one of the “reading rooms” on the trade agreements to which MEPs are meant to have access she had to sign a 14-page document and leave all her personal belongings locked up because of “how small cameras can be these days.”

You really do have to wonder at the content of negotiations which are cloaked in such extreme secrecy. Massachusetts Senator, Elizabeth Warren, has said, “I have supporters of the deal say to me, “The negotiations have to be secret because if the American people actually knew what was in them, they would be opposed.” An EU Citizens’ Initiative which collected three million signatures against TTIP as it now stands should have allowed them to present legislation to the European Commission was dismissed on a technicality. EU parliamentarians have been told to “sell” the deal back home and MEP Brian Hayes has been doing the business for us, describing opposition to “the largest bi-lateral trade deal in history” as “loose comment.” A spokesperson for the Department of Trade gave me a dose of spin about the “growth” that the deal would mean — a 1.1 increase in Irish GDP — without addressing the question of growth hormones, among many others.

When will this new Government speak out for basic European values from decent food to the right of our governments to make our laws?

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