Proponents of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) use a simple formula to argue for the deal: more open trade leads to more growth which leads to more jobs. One of the many reasons why this is problematic is that it says nothing about how projected impacts of TTIP - 0.5% growth and 0.7% job dislocation across the EU - will be distributed. Experience shows that this kind of economic disruption is most likely to hit least-well-off communities hardest, yet they have had no say in the development of the deal let alone the content of the negotiations. The Trade Justice Movement (TJM) and Common Wealth theatre company have been working with a community cast to develop a piece of theatre that will help to change that.
We recruited the cast in Bradford, a town that stands to experience significant impacts from TTIP. Although it has nearly 6,000 listed buildings and one UNESCO world heritage site, it has seen significant deindustrialisation since the 1980s, with a shift from manufacturing to service sector jobs. Unemployment, at four percent, is nearly twice the national average and median wages are 86% of the national average.
The cast are four young women, ages fifteen to eighteen, studying for GCSEs and A levels at state schools. Nayab works part-time in a school, Shanice at a sports shop. At the audition, TJM introduced them to some of the basics of trade and Common Wealth supported them to produce short scenes. We then arranged for them to undertake a day of research, interviewing key players in the negotiations, including Lillian Greenwood MP (Deputy Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on EU-US trade and investment), and civil servants and campaign organisations working on TTIP. The cast initially had a sketchy knowledge about trade, but they did their homework: they arrived in London armed with an astounding understanding of the issues and a killer set of questions.
The cast saw the trade system as being fundamentally about power and inequality - who decides, who doesn't, whose interests are represented, whose aren't. Key to this is who has access to the right information. The lack of transparency in the TTIP negotiations is of huge concern: MEPs will not see the detail of the agreement until it is concluded and will have no opportunity to amend the deal. But the cast also raised a deeper question: they feel that they are denied access to basic information that would allow them to have a say, from the workings of the European Union to how economies function. Nayab argued that "political stuff is only taught if you choose it at GCSE or A level", Shanice that "school teach you maths which you'll never use, like Pythagoras theorem, but they don't teach you about banking and politics".
Despite a lack of formal education on economics, their lived experience tells them plenty about the way the current system is working. Asked whether they thought that big companies making more money would affect them (as promised by the EU's much-criticised CEPR study on TTIP), their response was simple: "only when the companies get into debt". The liberalisation of financial services, which the EU wants TTIP to lock in, and the ensuing crash has meant hard times in Bradford. Shanice's experience of work has taught her that "the economy doesn't do anything for teenagers. It doesn't benefit me at all, I have to get by and be a slave for the business, you're just making money for them." She clearly sees through classical economic theory: "they said that if the economy was better it would trickle down to us, well I haven't seen a drop never mind a trickle".
Nina related it directly to her own family's experience: "there have been so many cuts in my mum's work that she's had to change jobs and look for other work. Her wages are going down, taxes are going up so how will she pay for what [the government] want and still pay for us two?". Nina had no time for the civil servants' argument that there are no risks associated with TTIP.
The cast also view TTIP an issue of class. Shanice, outraged by the way a civil servant had dismissed her concerns about the deal, said "they say they want to hear from us but unless we're from the right class or have a massive army behind us they don't care. That made me feel rubbish. I don't see the point in asking if they are not going to act on it... some guy that I don't even know can't make decisions for me, he might be in a great situation, somewhere to live, loads of money, but he's not in our situation so he can't speak for us." The gulf between decision makers and communities in places like Bradford is clearly huge: one civil servant suggested that the cast should be happy that TTIP would increase their private sector pensions - few people in their families have such a thing.
After a whistle-stop tour of TTIP and the end of the rehearsals, here are some of the cast's reflections on the process: Nayab: "knowledge makes me feel powerful. I felt with TTIP like I didn't know enough so I didn't want to say anything but then we gathered all the information, we knew what we meant and when we talked to Lillian [Greenwood] and she didn't know as much as us, I felt like 'yeah, I know more than you'". Her conclusions about the process of negotiations were: "I'd change the way the whole system is dealt with. I don't like the fact that everything is hidden and no-one knows about it and they think they can get away with it." Seherish saw hope in the growing movement calling for an end to the deal: "I like it when people protest and do things... It's knowing that other people are doing stuff and they do care".
People have learnt from bitter experience that the argument that trade liberalisation leads to growth and jobs simply doesn't stack up. Why should they trust assurances that TTIP will be great for everyone, when it's clear that no-one knows what the impacts will be for different regions, especially when civil servants try to pretend that there are no possible risks associated with the deal? They know better than most that a deal done in secrecy, negotiated by the world's elite, stands little chance of being in their interests.
A pilot of 'The Deal vs. The People' will be staged at 7.30pm, 11th December at Toynbee Hall.