On 19 July 2014, under the title ‘Take Back the Power’, the North and East London World Development Movement organised a debate between 4 candidates for the European Parliament elections (which are taking place between 22 and 25 May 2014 – on the 22nd in the UK).
The debate was arranged because the current negotiations between the European Union and the United States of America about a Trade and Investment Partnership (called Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership or TTIP) is one of the most important issues currently being addressed by the EU; and the European Parliament, at the end of the negotiations (which the European Parliament is not party to) will have the final say. If they vote no, the deal is dead.
I have posted on the subject of TTIP on this blog before. Here, I want to pick up on a few important points from the debate just before you all go to cast your vote on Thursday.
What’s so dangerous about TTIP?
John Hilary, Director of War on Want, who chaired the debate, picked out the three key issues:
It is a charter for deregulation – the key benefits identified for big business likely to come out of this agreement if it is passed will come from deregulation. But, as he says in his publication on the subject, ‘these ‘barriers’ are in reality some of our most prized social standards and environmental regulations, such as labour rights, food safety rules (including restrictions on GMOs), regulations on the use of toxic chemicals, digital privacy laws and even new banking safeguards introduced to prevent a repeat of the 2008 financial crisis.’
It is a charter for handing over public services to the private sector for profit – to an even greater extent than happens already.
It is an attack on democracy and the rule of law by providing businesses (provided they are foreign investors) with access to unaccountable tribunals before whom they can sue governments for loss of profits as a result of government action. Such access to a private, unaccountable ‘justice’ system is not open to domestic companies; but it is paraded in the negotiations are being necessary for fairness. This mechanism is called an Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) mechanism and the people sitting on the tribunals are, by and large, lawyers from private law firms who in other matters would be representing the very people whose claims against elected governments they judge.
So what did the candidates say?
The candidates who were on the panel were:
Glyn Chambers, Candidate for the Conservative Party – standing on place 7 of their list
Seb Dance, Candidate for the Labour Party – standing on place 4 of their list
Jonathan Fryer, Candidate for the Liberal Democrat Party – standing on place 2 on their list
Jean Lambert, Candidate for the Green Party (and an MEP since 1999) – standing on place 1 on their list.
UKIP had been invited in good time but more or less at the last minute informed the organisers that it was too late for them to find someone. However, the chair informed us of their broad position: they like the type of agreement TTIP is but they don’t like the fact that it is being negotiated at EU level. So they are in favour of unfettered free trade at the expense of people and planet, but not if it’s done by the EU.
The other candidates were able to speak for themselves and, after some introductory remarks responded to many questions from the audience.
Essentially, the key questions were these:
- Why is TTIP being negotiated in secret?
- Would they support the Investor State Dispute Settlement mechanism?
- Would they support TTIP as it appears to be shaping up at this stage?
- Would they support TTIP with some safeguards?
Glyn Chambers, Conservative
He nailed his colours to the mast from the off, saying he is in favour of TTIP, he doesn’t see that the ISDS mechanism is a problem and that much of the discussion about specific risk is basically not true. In other words, he is happy to side with big business. He indicated that ISDS, because it already exists in a lot of other agreements isn’t an issue. It was pointed out to him from the floor that just because it already exists it doesn’t make it right or benign.
On each of the votes that were taken throughout the evening he voted for TTIP, for ISDS, for big business.
He did say that the removal of regulation (which in his view was only about removing duplication of regulation – he couldn’t see the race to the bottom that TTIP will fuel) was mainly for the benefit of small businesses and he didn’t understand a certain amount of laughter from the audience on this one.
He also didn’t quite see what we were all on about with regard to secrecy. Of course, he indicated, such deals would be discussed in private. We can’t have our negotiating position public, now, can we? He suggested that the public consultation, which the European Commission has launched on this subject was a sign that the European Commission is open to the views of citizens. Sadly, and as you can read on my blog elsewhere, it is far from that.
Jean Lambert, Green Party
She was equally clear on her position right from the start. Trade should not undermine development and aid. It should not be used to entrench inequality and power. It should not be used to undermine standards in areas such as labour law, environmental standards, food safety, and human rights.
Jean voted against TTIP, ISDS and did not seem convinced that there would be enough by way of improvement in the proposed agreement to warrant supporting it.
Jean, being realistic – and she has worked on Trade issues at EU level for some time – realises that there is no chance that the US will give up the idea of ISDS; that there is no chance that we will get cast iron guarantees that EU Member States can still insist on labelling GMO containing food products; that there is no chance that US business will want an improvement of standards on chemicals, on food, and on data protection.
And of course, if TTIP ever happens, the lawsuits in secret tribunals against which there is no appeal, won’t be subject to public scrutiny. So who knows what will be going on there.
Jean expressed her concerns about the secrecy surrounding the negotiations. This extends into the ability of the European Parliament to engage in the process in a meaningful way. It is important to understand, she indicated, that the European Parliament can, in the end, only say yes or no to TTIP; it can’t improve it, it can’t change it.
She also echoed the concerns expressed in the audience that the consultation is far from helpful and that, indeed, it is rather patronising to the citizens of Europe. One of the main criticisms is that it doesn’t even ask: do you want TTIP? Nonetheless, it is important to respond to the consultation because that will at least give a sign that people are engaged in this debate.
Seb Dance, Labour Party
Apart from the fact that Seb turned up late for the event, when he started he said that there was nothing in what Jean had said in her opening remarks that he didn’t agree with.
His position is that the Labour Party would vote against ISDS and against TTIP in the form it is currently likely to be; he did indicate that, given certain safeguards, he would vote for it.
For him, there is a chance of economic benefits and he feels they are worth it. The fact that the economic benefits claimed for the agreement are based on very shaky figures and even government ministers have said they can’t be trusted wasn’t addressed by any of the speakers in any detail.
He indicated that his postbag is currently dominated by TTIP and that he understands that people are concerned; he thinks that’s good.
But the problem remains, and it is a problem with the current incarnation of the Labour Party. Seb said ‘we have to trade our way out of the current economic crisis’. Do we? Isn’t it unfettered capitalism that got us into it? Don’t we have to start looking at our economy and ask ourselves: what sort of economy will provide people with a life worth living? What sort of economy will ensure that our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren have a planet they can actually exist on? Well, on the basis of the discussion these aren’t the questions Labour is asking. (And nor are the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, for that matter).
Jonathan Fryer, Liberal Democrat Party
Jonathan was clear that he is against ISDS, that he sees real problems with the agreement as a whole but that he wants to contribute to the improvement of TTIP rather than close the door to it. He says that he would vote against it unless it is improved.
This is not, however, the position of other members of his party, one of whom is a sitting MEP for London. Sarah Ludford, in a response to an e-mail I sent her said, inter alia:
As MEP for London and vice-chair of the European Parliament’s delegation to the United States of America, I support the TTIP because it will bring great benefits to London, Europe and beyond. This has been confirmed by an independent research study conducted by Centre for Economic Policy Research and carried out on behalf of the European Commission of which a summary can be found here.
So there is no unity in the Liberal Democrat party on this issue.
And whilst I firmly believe that Jonathan Fryer is a most honourable man and would make a good representative of the people of London, the party he represents is a major disappointment when it comes to keeping promises. And in this instance we already have a promise from one of his prospective colleagues to do the exact opposite of what he things should be done.
Where did it leave us?
At the end, it was very clear:
Jean Lambert committed herself to voting against TTIP and that is the position of her party.
Glyn Chambers committed himself to voting in favour of TTIP and that is the position of his party.
Seb Dance left open the possibility of a TTIP that Labour might vote for – if there were safeguards for the NHS, if there was no ISDS, if…. But such safeguards aren’t going to happen. And whether the position of Labour as a party is as clear even as that of Seb Dance, I didn’t get from the discussion.
Jonathan Fryer had said in his opening remarks that he wanted to improve TTIP or vote against it. As the European Parliament has no way of improving TTIP, I guess it would mean he’d vote against it. But that is not the position of his party – or at least not of the whole party.
The choice is ours: do we want TTIP or not? If not, you know who to vote for on Thursday.
And if you don’t, and you end up having TTIP and all our social, environmental and public policy progress of the last 100 years flushed down the pan, and if you then don’t like it, well…. That’s why voting matters. John Hilary, The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, published by the Rosa Luxembourg Foundation, Brussels Office, accessed at: http://rosalux.gr/sites/default/files/publications/ttip_web.pdf on 20 May 2014  ibid., p. 6