The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the United States and the European Union is the biggest proposed trade deal ever. If it gets the go ahead, TTIP will harmonise regulation between the world's two largest trade blocs and reduce barriers to trade across many economic sectors. Estimates of the benefits run to tens of billions of euros per year in increased GDP for the EU. At a time of low growth across Europe, such a deal has the potential to improve economic prospects on both sides of the Atlantic.
However, the UK Government has done almost nothing to inform the public about TTIP. The behind-closed-doors nature of the negotiations seem to have scared Ministers off engaging in any meaningful dialogue about the deal out of fear of highlighting its inherent lack of transparency and potential pitfalls. Estimates of overall benefits have at times been overstated in the absence of detailed sector by sector analysis that should inform this debate. Instead, the job of communicating TTIP's benefits and potential drawbacks has been left to trade unions and campaign groups such as 38 Degrees on the one hand, and lobbyists for global corporations on the other.
Such radio silence from the government isn't acceptable. As the talks progress, it becomes more necessary to engage with the public and provide reassurance to those who are understandably worried that the effects of the agreement could see a race to the bottom on working conditions and uninvited attacks on our public services. Both the UK Government and the EU Commission now need to prioritise transparency for the remainder of the TTIP negotiations so the current emotive state of debate can be moved to one based on facts and evidence.
The Labour Party position is clear. The US and the EU are the most important markets for the UK, and reducing barriers to trade should, with proper protections, help UK businesses and boost jobs. We support the reduction of costs and the increase in consumer choice that TTIP can bring. However, we share the concern of many people over the impact that TTIP could have on public services and our ability to implement public policy.
UK Ministers failed for months during 2014 to keep the public informed of the risk that the free trade deal could have to the NHS, despite other EU countries stating clearly that they would not sign a deal risking the privatisation of their own national public services. Given the recent track record of this Tory-led government, which is ideologically inclined towards the increasing privatisation of the NHS, this is understandably worrying.
The Labour Party have also raised serious concerns over the issue of ISDS (Investor State Dispute Settlements) in the TTIP - provisions that could enable corporations to launch legal challenges to any national legislation that they feel affects them negatively. Noting the controversy that ISDS was generating, the EU Commission ran a public consultation last year on the issue, garnering 150,000 responses (a third of which came from the UK). Astonishingly, despite the public outcry at home and the increasingly critical positions being taken by both Germany and France, the UK Government has said that it does not plan to issue a formal response to the ISDS consultation, raising yet more doubts about the UK's official policy towards the TTIP negotiations, which appears lethargic at best. The EU's final policy on ISDS is still not clear. At the very least we should expect our government to robustly defend the ability of our own domestic court system to address such legal challenges and to argue for a 'loser pays' model to be adopted to discourage frivolous disputes.
TTIP negotiations were originally scheduled to conclude in 2014, so it's understandable that the EU's communications efforts do seem to have been stepped-up of late to help build public consent for the deal to be signed this year. EU Trade Commissioner Malmström issued a statement this month stating that 'US and EU trade agreements do not prevent governments, at any level, from providing or supporting services in areas such as water, education, health, and social services.' It is reassuring that we are finally getting some clarity on issues that are concerning UK and EU citizens so much. There has been an information vacuum for too long but understandable concerns remain. The task of keeping the public informed for the remainder of the negotiations should not be left only to the EU Trade Commissioner. David Cameron and other members of the government have a duty to let the public know about what TTIP will really mean for public services and the economy as a whole - it is simply not democratic to continue the smoke-filled room approach that has defined TTIP so far.