The negotiations between the US and the EU for the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP, are shrouded in secrecy. This is draconian and out-dated.
Secret trade deals used to be the norm across the globe with talks being conducted in dark rooms between people we would never hear the names of. The European Union usually conducts its trade deals in the open, even advertising public questionnaires that any stakeholder in the new deals can answer. TTIP has turned this exceptional level of transparency on its head. MPs can only view the papers in secret reading rooms where electronic devices are left at the door and only pencil and paper can be used to make notes. At first glance this radical departure is worrying and seems to be putting democracy on the gallows.
Textual proposals, not final agreements, released by the European Commission show how vastly comprehensive TTIP will be, containing areas of discussion from chemicals and cosmetics to sustainable development and public procurement. Leaked details obtained by Greenpeace in April caused hysteria and a host of protests at what some found to be worrying developments in the deal.
Concerns over food quality, specifically growth hormones, illegal in the EU, in products coming from the US being made available on the European market has angered some. Others have advised caution over TTIP opening up the NHS to possible privatisation. However the largest cause for concern for many is the Investor-State Dispute Settlements. When the news broke that ISDS would be contained in TTIP, newspapers jumped to say that this would allow companies to sue governments and affect national policy. Rallies, marches and petitions followed, one amassing 3,284,289 signatures, with huge swathes of people demanding that the trade negotiations be halted. The outcome is yet to be seen but so far the engagement with the public over TTIP has been desperately shambolic giving a decidedly conspiratorial taste to the deal.
This therefore begs the question as to why TTIP negotiations are secret in the first place.
If TTIP is agreed then it will create the largest free trade area ever seen with the world’s two leading economies on either side. Negotiations between such powerhouses will be bloody and brutal. In a trade deal one side is usually the clear superior force and can dictate much of the final agreement, but in the case of TTIP both sides will be seeking a better deal for themselves and think that they can get it. The role of individual ability is therefore in play. If we exposed negotiators and diplomats to the public, as we do with MPs, they become public figures and their skills are put on show. PMQs are detested by many for being the epitome of ‘Punch and Judy Politics’, but this is precisely what public exposure creates. MPs need to be seen loudly, yet eloquently, exclaiming their views in order to curry favour and if they appear to be dull, regardless of skill, they can lose support. Negotiators could become open to the same judgements and if the public felt they were ineffectual there may be calls for their removal, slowing the process.
If the negotiations were open to all they could be used for political point scoring. If a government is low in the polls back home they could use an aggressive debate over trade legislation in an attempt to win voters back, regardless of whether it actually aided international cooperation. This is precisely what we do not want in negotiations. Turning TTIP into the House of Commons could turn rational debate into a catastrophic cacophony with careerists planting their flags in the centre of the table.
Exposing TTIP to the public could also allow companies to exert undue pressure on policy proposals, the very thing people are worried about happening if the trade deal is put in place. The 2011 United States-Korea Free Trade Agreement was a divisive one. The US Government exposed some details of the potential deal regarding the automotive industry, which they felt was not in their favour. This was leapt upon by auto-unions and big car companies, such as Ford, precipitating meetings and directly affecting the trade deal. Revealing the fact that the deal was one sided resulted in a flurry of lobbying from hugely powerful American organisations which changed a major part of the agreement. While lobbying is rife in Brussels, revealing the TTIP talks could cause even more giving corporations additional power.
The leaks and secrecy surrounding TTIP have lodged it in a quagmire of suspicion. People are wary of the deal and governments are now starting to cede. Whether or not the privacy of the TTIP negotiations are to protect the negotiators, the speculation surrounding them certainly has done a great deal of damage, and could stop TTIP altogether.