Photo credit: Giampaolo Squarcina
The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership currently under negotiation between the European Union (EU) and United States will be, if adopted, the biggest trade agreement of its kind, representing nearly half of the world's GDP and a quarter of global trade.
People are scared about TTIP. They fear that such a deal will inevitably lower standards, endanger our public services and threaten our rights; that it will shift yet more power from people and governments into the hands of multinational corporations. Already 2.5 million people have signed petitions in protest against negotiations, and thousands have marched the streets all across Europe in defiant uproar against any such deal. A European Commission public consultation attracted 150,000 responses; such attention paid to a single piece of legislation has never before been seen.
Screaming headlines about chlorine washed chicken from the US and meat pumped with hormones and antibiotics abound, but the loudest outrage is reserved for a four-letter acronym whose inclusion in TTIP many fear would sound the final death knell for democracy and citizenship in the EU once and for all.
People are right to be outraged: present in the vast majority of bilateral trade agreements agreed between states, Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) is a para-judicial and opaque system of private arbitration that allows companies to sue governments at great cost to the taxpayer. It has led to some horrendous abuses so far: French utility company Veolia is suing the government for increasing the minimum wage; Swedish energy giant Vattenfall is claiming compensation from Germany because the country banned nuclear power; Phillip Morris is awaiting a judgement on Australia's decision to introduce plain-packaging for cigarettes. The list goes on.
For some, the inclusion of ISDS in a trade deal with the US is reason enough to leave the European Union entirely: in the face of an overwhelmingly pro free-trade, pro-ISDS, liberal and conservative-led European Commission, any attempt to secure a "good" TTIP is futile, they say. Better to leave altogether, go it alone and build a "new Britain" based on socialist principles. As David Cameron's promised referendum on the UK's membership of the EU fast approaches the "Lexit" camp grows in equal pace.
But let's consider exactly what pulling out of the European Union will mean in practice for a moment. Various alternatives to full membership have been presented, including the so-called "Norway option," or that of developing bilateral trade deals between the UK and third countries entirely apart from EU influence. Neither is good news for the UK.
As a member of the European Free Trade Area (EFTA) and European Economic Area (EEA), Norway sits outside of the EU but participates in and remains subject to the same single market regulations and the fundamental principles of the free movement of goods, services, people and capital as the 28 full member states. To date, our northern neighbours have absorbed three quarters of all EU legislative acts into Norwegian law, and yet at no point have its leaders had any say whosoever in how such laws are created.
In March 2015, the EFTA parliamentary assembly adopted a resolution in which it recognised that the European Economic Community "will be affected by any regulatory changes due to TTIP", while acknowledging its bystander status in negotiations, merely urging the European Commission "to increase the continuous dialogue" with its member states. In other words, Norway and its fellow EEA countries will have to silently swallow any deal hammered out between the EU and US, no matter how bitter the pill.
A second popular option - that of a bilateral trade deal agreed between the UK and US alone - is altogether more terrifying. This is where the real bonfire of our rights, standards and protections will begin: our UK government has, from the offset, demonstrated gleeful commitment to TTIP and has proved to be one of the most vocal proponents of the hated ISDS mechanism, in marked contrast with other member states. France and Germany have both been outspoken critics of the inclusion of any such mechanism in a trade deal with America, calling for its removal from negotiations. On public services, while Germany has traditionally requested explicit exclusions for its publicly-owned hospitals from EU trade deals, the UK has taken a much more relaxed approach, arguing repeatedly that the EU-wide exclusion of "public utilities" is more than sufficient to protect its public hospitals.
Now leading a majority Conservative government that is uncompromisingly and unashamedly committed to neoliberal principles, David Cameron's first five years in power have been defined by tax breaks for corporations and the rich, the rapid selling off of the NHS and an unabashed assault on the poor and the vulnerable. Billions of pounds worth of business deals with China are signed off as core British industries are left to wither into non-existence. With rumours that the Prime Minister is already seeking to withdraw permanently from core European protections for workers, it's quite clear on which side his bread is buttered - we cannot and must not leave the fate of our trade policy in his hands alone.
Having built a career on campaigning for better regulation and fair trading practices that protect our people, planet and the principles of freedom and democracy, I share the concerns of my constituents, and it is as a politician and member of the International Trade Committee of the European Parliament that I can give these people a voice where they will be heard. It is precisely by engaging, persuading and building alliances with our European colleagues that we will ensure that the TTIP we are presented with once negotiations are concluded is one that is progressive, fair and beneficial to ordinary European citizens.
We have already made many key gains this way - thanks to the hard work of Labour and Socialist and Democrat MEPs, a Parliamentary Resolution on TTIP adopted in July this year made clear that our vision of TTIP is one that protects worker rights and public services - including the NHS - upholds EU environmental and food safety standards and removes unnecessary red tape for small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs). The fight is now on to ensure that ISDS, and any arbitration mechanism masquerading under a different name, is unambiguously and permanently removed from TTIP.
TTIP is being negotiated whether we like it or not, and its impact will be felt whether or not we stay in the EU. The choice whether to maintain our membership or go it alone will ultimately be a choice between having a say in our future or watching from the sidelines. I know which option I prefer.
Jude Kirton-Darling is Labour MEP for the North East of England and member of the International Trade Committee in the European Parliament