By Richard Corbett, Member of the European Parliament for Yorkshire & Humber, and Deputy Leader of the Labour MEPs. He is currently Vice-Chair of the European Movement in the UK
Do we want a free trade deal with the USA? In principle, Europe – and especially the UK – has a lot to gain from a partnership that lowers tariffs, reduces red tape and harmonises regulations. So free trade between the world’s biggest market and its opposite number ought to be a good thing for both sides. In principle.
But the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP, is not all sweetness and light. Even as initial negotiations got underway between European and American trade representatives a couple of years ago, concerns began to surface in the public debate about what might be included in a future deal. Some of these concerns have proved unfounded. But others are genuine, serious, and need to be addressed:
- First, we must not allow any future deal to undermine our existing standards of protection for workers, consumers and the environment. We’ve fought hard for high standards in Britain and across Europe. We mustn’t throw all this away in the name of a transatlantic deal.
- Second, our vital public services must not be threatened. For instance, we don’t want a deal which makes privatisation any more likely, or any harder to reverse in a subsequent rethink. We’ve had some recent reassurance from negotiators on this, but that doesn’t cover all the bases and the devil will be in the detail.
- Third, we must not allow special extra-judicial tribunals to undermine national legal systems. It is not necessary to add new ‘dispute settlement’ provisions to a deal like TTIP, where the partners already have mutually-recognised, well-functioning and independent courts. And it’s all very well to say that such “ISDS” clauses exist already in hundreds of similar agreements across the world. It’s precisely the way they’ve operated that cause alarm, when people see, for instance, tobacco companies suing the Australian government for lost profits when the latter introduced plain packaging.
The debate in Britain
We British sometimes imagine that our reservations are unique. They aren’t. They are shared across Europe, and when I visited the US a couple of weeks ago, I was struck by the fact that campaigners, unions, consumer organisations and politicians expressed exactly the same mix of hopes and fears as we hear at home about what a future trade deal might bring.
There is, though, one unusual twist to the debate here in Britain. Uniquely, we have a government that’s thrown its weight behind TTIP while simultaneously toying with abandoning its place in the EU.
This is a somewhat precarious position to try to cling to. Britain risks ending up with no influence on shaping the deal, and no separate deal of our own.
I have on my desk a glossy brochure sent to me last year by British American Business, an organisation that represents many transatlantic companies large and small. It paints a rosy picture of TTIP – one about which we might well have some reservations. But, like it or loathe it, right there on the brochure’s front page is a stark warning that a trade deal is:
“Available to the UK as part of the EU and would unlikely be replicable in any foreseeable negotiating context just between the UK and the US.”
From the American perspective, the UK is a small fish on the far side of a big pond; but Europe is a leviathan. There’s little chance of getting an acceptable separate deal for Britain. Only the EU-US talks offer the prospect of a deal, and one that meets our concerns.
Indeed, British voices are leading the way in highlighting concerns about regulatory standards, public services, and investor-state tribunals. It was British Labour MEPs who brokered an agreement a few weeks ago so that the Socialist & Democrat grouping in the European Parliament could adopt a firm line against extra-judicial dispute settlement measures. And negotiators on both sides of the Atlantic have to listen to us because when we’re united, we speak with a powerful voice in the European Parliament – and Parliament has the power to veto any transatlantic deal it’s not happy with.
I believe it’s vital that British priorities and values are reflected in any final agreement, not just because these priorities and values are in our own national interest, but because they’re right for Europe and the US too. But make no mistake: if a deal is going to happen, it will be on terms acceptable to Europe, with its collective negotiating clout. The simple choice Britain faces is whether to get stuck in and make this what we want – or just give up and back out.
And, of course, it’s not just TTIP. There are echoes here of the choice we face across a whole range of policy areas. The European Union is not going to go away just because a few British eurosceptics close their eyes and wish. We can be part of it, shaping it, amplifying our voice, influencing the world; or we can be outside it, wishing it wasn’t happening to us. Take your pick.
This piece was originally written for British Influence and has been republished with permission.