TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) is a trade deal currently being negotiated between the United States Government and the European Commission. Most readers will already know that, and this is in itself is the biggest change I’ve seen since I began working on this issue upon my election to the European Parliament in 2014. Many people now know what TTIP is and, by in large, they don’t like what they’re seeing.
It was evident from very early on in negotiations that a key component of the strategy of TTIP proponents was to keep citizens in the dark by preventing information on the talks from entering the public domain until it was almost too late. That strategy now lies in tatters as high-profile leaks have drawn public attention to the shroud of secrecy and lack of democratic accountability which surrounds the negotiations. The leaks have greatly concerned citizens in Europe and the USA. Many people have been mobilised into an almost unprecedented international campaign that has been based on a relatively simple tactic – pass on the information they have to others, who in turn will realise the dangerous consequences of TTIP and join the campaign. It’s a campaign of information – and it’s working.
I can now, with confidence, make an assertion that I couldn’t have in 2014 – that the campaign against a destructive EU trade agenda is winnable. The message is getting through, but not to everyone.
For a treaty that could have drastic and far-reaching consequences for this country, most Irish people will be surprised to learn that their Government is among the chief cheerleaders of TTIP. In fact the Fine Gael-led Government is full square behind any EU trade deal regardless of the consequences for Ireland. The Government and Fine Gael MEPs are failing to stand up for Ireland’s interests in the ongoing EU-US trade talks, simply proclaiming it “is good for Ireland”. This is despite the fact that it hasn’t even been fully negotiated and that most of its component parts have been kept secret (even from governments) by the European Commission.
Some have wondered why opposition to TTIP hasn’t been as large in Ireland as it has been elsewhere. I believe the reason is twofold. One is that Irish people are naturally supportive of the concept of free trade. The other is that we like Americans. It is these instinctive positions that the Irish proponents of TTIP have sought to exploit.
Increasingly though people are realising that to hold both positions and oppose TTIP is not contradictory. TTIP isn’t a free trade deal in the traditional sense, and we actually already have one of the best trading relationships with the US without it. In fact, those who have expressed concern about the direction of TTIP include groups normally quick to support EU initiatives, such as farming organisations, SME representative bodies, almost all European trade unions, and hundreds of advocacy associations. In Ireland, organisations such as the Irish Cancer Society, as well as several environmental and food-producing representatives, have carried out excellent research that shows we need to be vigilant.
The truth is that TTIP could have major negative consequences for Irish agriculture, workers’ rights, food safety, and the environment in Ireland. But the Irish Government is not protecting the interests of Ireland or its citizens. Under TTIP Irish farmers will be severely disadvantaged through the expected vast increases to the quota for US meat imports into Europe. This will put Irish family farmers into direct competition with huge industrial farms in the United States. These US competitors do not have to maintain the same high standards of regulation as Irish farmers. Neither will American meat producers have to meet the same animal health and environmental standards that apply in Ireland. The lower production costs will be a severe disadvantage to Irish farmers.
According to the Government-commissioned ‘Copenhagen Economics Report’ Ireland’s beef sector could contract by up to €45 million as a result of TTIP. But it may indeed be much worse than that because TTIP aims to remove what its supporters claim are “unnecessary barriers” to trade. To get an idea what this means, one only has to look at how a proposed EU regulation to ban 31 pesticides containing dangerous chemicals linked to testicular cancer and infertility were scrapped because of pressure by the US during the TTIP negotiations.
EU regulations regarding GMOs and the use of chemicals in food production are vastly different between than those in the US, but under TTIP, practices regarded as a health risk by Irish food producers and consumers may come into use here. The US and EU also have vastly divergent standards of rights for workers. For instance, EU workers are entitled to 25 days annual leave but in the US there are no statutory requirements. Any erosion of workers’ rights legislation will result in downward pressure on wages and conditions in Ireland.
Meanwhile, TTIP seeks to ‘liberalise’ all sectors of the economy and multinational corporations make no secret of their desire to use it as a vehicle to get control of water, health, education and postal services. This will lead inevitably to the outsourcing and privatisation of vital public utilities in Ireland and, it is worth remembering, TTIP prevents any re-nationalisation of services once privatised.
TTIP seeks to limit the power of governments to regulate for sustainable environmental practices. This would mean current legislative efforts to ban fracking and other environmentally dangerous practises will be undermined. Fundamentally, TTIP weakens Irish democracy.
For instance, the proposal for an ‘Investor Court’ would allow wealthy multinational corporations sue the Irish Government for implementing measures that impact on potential profits. This would leave the Irish State open to previously unimagined liabilities. Of course, this has enormous implications for the Irish Constitution and I have commissioned legal opinion from an eminent Senior Counsel, Matthias Kelly, who confirms that if the EU Commission proceeds with this proposal, it will likely require a referendum in Ireland.
The implications of the inclusion in TTIP (and in other trade deals including CETA with Canada) of an ‘Investor Court’, can be seen in threats by French corporation Veolia to sue the Egyptian city of Alexandria because Egypt proposed to increase the minimum wage. Veolia demanded compensation if costs increased and, as a result, the Government of Egypt abandoned its proposal.
The primary job of any Irish Government when dealing with the EU, must be to protect the interests of Ireland and its citizens. Instead, the Fine Gael-led government has seen its role as a mere PR agent for the European Commission. The Government has selectively used reports such as that produced by Copenhagen Economics to set out a best case scenario even though that report clearly states that potential gains from TTIP will disproportionately benefit foreign multinationals often at the expense of Irish-owned firms. The exports of six out of the eight sectors, where all exports are produced by Irish firms, are expected to fall as a result of TTIP. Again, this is according to the Irish Government’s own commissioned report.
Going by recent statements from Fine Gael MEP Brian Hayes, it is also clear that his party wants the final TTIP agreement to include a ‘financial services chapter’. The financial services industry is eager for this to happen because – and they are clearly on the record on this – they see TTIP as an opportunity to limit and reverse regulatory constraints on their activities. If that doesn’t set alarm bells ringing in Ireland, then where could it?
Sinn Fein opposes TTIP under its current mandate and we will challenge any efforts that attempt to reduce the standards we have come to expect on food, the environment, the rights of workers and of consumers. The Irish Government should do the same, but we know they will not do so unless forced. It is our job to force them.
There is a small cohort of Irish opinion that will support TTIP whatever it includes. There is a sizeable minority who are already awakened to its dangers and will oppose the deal. The rest of society are either unaware of the deal or have yet to make up their minds as to its merits or otherwise. The job of the Left and all progressive voices is to engage with this section of the population (which is possibly the majority at this point). Our greatest weapon is information. Let’s share it widely so that we can defeat TTIP and the wider regressive, dangerous and economically damaging EU trade agenda.