TTIP / TAFTA : the key to freer trade, or corporate greed?

Some say the US/EU trade deal that could be agreed this year will open up markets and promote UK growth. Others fear it will drive down wages and promote privatisation
Dealers on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange
Dealers on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange: free trade with the EU is part of President Obama’s growth strategy. Photograph: John Gress/REUTERS

Cheap American olive oil could, in a few years’ time, be sitting on supermarket shelves next to the Tuscan single estate varieties loved by British foodies. At present a prohibitive tariff on US imports effectively prices them out of contention.

But a groundbreaking trade deal could lower the $1,680-a-tonne tariff on US olive oil to match the $34 a tonne the US charges on imports from the EU. Or the tariffs could disappear altogether. Either way, Greek, Spanish and Italian olive farmers must fear the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a deal that aims to create a level playing field between them and massive US agri-businesses.

Trade deals were once seen as a panacea for global poverty. In the 1990s, the World Trade Organisation was formed to harmonise cross-border regulations on everything from cars to pharmaceuticals and cut tariffs in order to promote the free flow of goods and services around the world.

There was always a fear that, far from being a winning formula for all, lower tariffs would favour the rich and powerful and crucify small producers, who would struggle to compete in an unprotected environment.

The effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), signed by the US, Mexico and Canada in 1993, appeared to justify that fear: it became in later years a cause celebre for anti-poverty campaigners, angered by the plight of Mexican workers. Not only were they subjected to low wages and poor working conditions by newly relocated US corporations – and, as consumers, to the relentless marketing power of Walmart, Coca Cola and the rest – but the major fringe benefit of cutting corruption remained illusory.

This year the US hopes to sign what many believe will be Nafta’s direct successor – TTIP. Should it get the green light from Congress and the EU commission, the agreement will be a bilateral treaty between Europe and the US, and, just like Nafta before it, outside the ambit of a gridlocked WTO.

Supporters say it will be an improvement on its predecessor because the main proponents are a liberal US president and a European commission that considers itself concerned with workers and consumers. Why, the commission asks, would 28 relatively affluent member states with concerns about high unemployment, stagnant wages, welfare provision and climate change agree to a charter that undermines workers’ rights, attacks public services or reduces environmental regulations?

TTIP is also billed as an agreement between equals that allows both sides to promote trade: it is claimed that the UK’s national income could be raised by £4bn-£10bn annually, or up to £100bn over 10 years. That amounts to a 0.3 percentage point boost to GDP, which would have pushed this year’s expected 2.4% growth to 2.7%.

An anti-TTIP demonstration in Berlin this year.
An anti-TTIP demonstration in Berlin this year. Photograph: Wolfram Steinberg/EPA

But it strikes fear into the hearts of many, who believe it to be a Trojan horse for rapacious corporations. These corporations, hellbent on driving down costs to enhance shareholder value, spell the end for Europe’s cosy welfare states and their ability to shield fledgling or, in the case of steel and coal, declining industries from the harsh realities of open competition.

TTIP has been compared to the 1846 Corn Law abolition, which either swept away protectionist tariffs that impoverished millions of workers, or protected a vital source of food and led Karl Marx to ask: “What is free trade under the present condition of society?” His answer was: “It is the freedom which capital has to crush the worker.” Is that the case with TTIP? Here are five key factors to consider.

Health and public services

From the moment TTIP became part of President Barack Obama’s growth strategy, critics have feared that he little realised the expansionary intentions of US healthcare companies or was too distracted to care. The concern relates to the prospect of EU countries, under pressure from rising healthcare costs, handing over major parts of healthcare provision to the private sector. Once services are in private hands, say critics, TTIP rules will prevent them being taken back into state control.

Since these fears were voiced, trade negotiators have excluded provisions that would have allowed firms to sue governments for the loss of health and public services contracts once they expired. This allows the UK’s rail franchise system and the contracting-out of health services to continue under time-limited contracts.

But the US private health industry, which is the largest in the world, views a Europe struggling with the needs of an ageing baby-boomer generation as ripe for the picking. For this reason alone, contracting out the distribution of drugs, the supply of medical devices and the provision of vital services could prove irresistible.

Dispute resolution

A little known facet of every trade deal is a separate form of arbitration for the businesses covered by the agreement, allowing them to avoid the civil courts. As such, the investor-state dispute resolution (ISDS) gives foreign investors the power to sue a government for introducing legislation that harms their investment.

Famously, it was used by big tobacco to sue the Australian government when it introduced plain cigarette packaging. Before and after the scandal, other governments have come under legal challenge from corporations concerned that public policymaking is denying them revenues.

In spring 2014, UN official and human rights lawyer Alfred de Zayas called for a moratorium on TTIP negotiations until ISDS was excluded. He warned that the secret court tribunals held to settle trade disputes were undemocratic. Their reliance on a small group of specialist lawyers also meant that arbitrators sitting in judgment were the ones who at other times represented corporate clients.

De Zayas feared that smaller states would find themselves in the same position as many governments in trade disputes, suffering huge legal bills and long delays to public policy reforms. He was joined in his mission by NGOs and, most importantly, by MEPs in Strasbourg.

As a first concession, the US side agreed to prohibit “brass-plate” firms – those that exist only by name in a county, without any employees or activity – from suing a government. This aimed to prevent a repeat of the Australia incident when the Ukrainian arm of tobacco firm Philip Morris, effectively a brass-plate entity, spearheaded the attack on plain packaging.

European commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom has proposed an international court of arbitration to settle investor disputes.
European commissioner Cecilia Malmström has proposed an international court of arbitration to settle investor disputes. Photograph: Emmanuel Dunand/Getty

Many EU politicians said this concession was too easy to circumvent, leaving corporations in a powerful position. So Europe’s chief negotiator, Swedish commissioner Cecilia Malmström, hatched a scheme for an international court of arbitration – an open public forum instead of the private court system. Even her critics said it was a bold move, and unlikely to be accepted by the Americans.

Washington has countered with proposals for a more transparent ISDS court, with live-streamed meetings and the publication of all documents. Not enough, says de Zayas, who wrote recently: “Alas, countless ISDS awards have shown a business bias that shocks the conscience. To the extent that the procedures are not transparent, the arbitrators are not always independent and the annulment procedure is nearly useless, ISDS should be abolished as incompatible with article 14(1) of the ICCPR [International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights] which requires that all suits at law be decided by independent and competent tribunals under the rule of law.”

The two sides have yet to formally discuss either proposal: under deals between the US and Japan and the EU and Canada the issue was barely mentioned, but it is now expected to be among the most contentious.


Michael Froman, the US chief negotiator, described the task of harmonising regulations as follows: “For years the US and EU have accepted each other’s inspection of aeroplanes because it was obvious they would not be able to check all the planes landing in their jurisdiction. We seek to expand this practice to other areas.”

So how would Froman apply this to the fact that American cars will still be left-hand drive, restricting their use on British roads? He argues that the cost of imported cars, research and development and testing can still benefit from the harmonisation of regulations on either side of the Atlantic.

Yet there is nothing US food regulators would like less than to accept processed foods tested by EU officials who failed to spot the horsemeat scandal.

And EU regulators are duty bound to reject GM foods, after sustained protests by Europe’s consumers in direct conflict with US farmers. Washington claims it will accept the science when it applies to regulations, which supports GM foods being accepted by the EU as part of TTIP, just as it is part of the WTO agreement.


Dispensing with tariffs seems like a straightforward process compared with tackling complex regulations. Under TTIP, tariffs on goods and services should disappear, though it is expected that some will only be reduced, and others may take years to go the way of history.

Under the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) recently agreed, but not yet implemented, between the US, Japan, Australia, Vietnam and other East Asian countries, all goods, from pork to cars, are covered.

A good example of how long it can take for tariffs to come down is found in the case of the 2.5% rate slapped on Japanese car imports to the US: this will start to be incrementally lowered 15 years after the agreement takes effect, halved in 20 years and eliminated in 25 years. In return, Japan will, among other things, lower its tariff on imported beef from 38.5% to 9% over 16 years. A similar programme could be possible under TTIP, with olive oil tariffs lowered over 25 years.

Labour standards and workers’ rights

Japanese trade unions supported the TPP deal, and unions in Europe are expected to follow suit with TTIP. They accept that labour protection rules lie outside the scope of a deal, and that their governments can therefore continue to implement minimum wage legislation and other supportive measures without being sanctioned.

But unions, where they exist, tend to represent workers in successful industries, which naturally welcome access to wider markets. Workers in weaker areas of the economy could find their jobs coming under pressure from harmonised regulations, lower tariffs, or even just exposure to a US rival with a work ethic that denies most employees more than two weeks’ holiday a year.

TTIP is important to the UK government because the US is our biggest market for goods and services outside the EU. It’s seen as especially important for small and medium-sized businesses, which appreciate the lack of language barrier. Britain also has a trade surplus with the US: we export more than we import, which helps counterbalance the country’s huge trade deficit.

Such is the momentum behind the talks that a deal could be agreed by the end of the year, and go before Congress and EU parliaments in 2017. Both sides claim to be making good progress. But the dispute over ISDS and protests from farmers could yet quash Obama’s hopes for US olive oil sales.

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