26 March 2014

Concerns about TTIP not just in Europe: interview with US State Legislator, Sharon Treat

Access to affordable medicines, protection of high labour and environmental standards are all at risk under TTIP says Sharon Treat, which she believes is a deal for international corporations that simply don’t want to play by the rules.

Simon McKeagney, Editor

Sharon Treat is a Member of the House of Representatives for the US State of Maine. She has warned against wholehearted support for the bilateral trade agreements that the US is currently negotiating; one with the EU, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), and another with 11 nations in the Pacific region, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Both trade deals pose significant risks for US states and their ability to legislate in the interest of the public good. 

In Europe, impressions are forming which suggest that TTIP is solely an attack on EU regulations by the US. This is not true - corporate interests on both sides of the Atantic are calling for the removal of regulations. In fact, many people in the US are as worried about the implications of TTIP as Europeans. Here we speak to Sharon about some of the concerns that US citizens and state representatives have.

1) Obama visits Brussels today and TTIP will most likely be high on the agenda. What, in your opinion should the a US- EU trade deal strive to do? 

We have many smaller manufacturers of specialty products such as high-tech fabrics and fancy jams made from Maine blueberries and other local products.  I’d love to see an agreement that helps these smaller manufacturers reach EU markets, just as I’d love to see EU products from similar small manufacturers for sale in my local stores.  Selling products abroad can be complicated and we should develop mechanisms to assist smaller entities so that they can compete. What I don’t want to see is an agreement that overturns valid public health and safety and environmental rules that are considered “non-tarriff barriers” by big international corporations that already do lots of business back and forth across the Atlantic with little difficulty.

2) Proponents suggest that this will be a key opportunity to set a global standard for international trade. Do you see this happening with TTIP? 

The USTR frequently asserts that TTIP (and the similar TPP agreement) will set a “high standard” and be a “21st Century agreement.” What does this mean? The average person on the street might think it means that such a trade agreement would protect high labor and environmental standards and promote the affordability of medicines.  They would be wrong.  In international trade-speak, “high standard” means aiming for the most restrictive patent rules that delay access to affordable generic medicines and getting rid of rules and regulations that big businesses would rather not comply with like requiring GMO labeling and regulating endocrine disruptors in consumer products.

3) It is the 20th anniversary of the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) this year. We heard a lot about the future benefits when it was being negotiated in the early 90s. Have these benefits come to fruition?

Not where I live, which has seen wave after wave of plant closures.  And the national data backs up my on-the-ground experience.

4) As a state legislator, you have mentioned in the past your concerns that TTIP could have an impact on a variety of health-related issues, from smoking prevention measures, to access to generic medicines. Can you explain why TTIP could impact the health sector? 

Philip Morris at this the is very moment is suing Australia pursuant to an obscure trade agreement with Hong Kong over its tobacco plain packaging rules, rules that have already been upheld as constitutional by Australia’s highest court, in part on grounds that the company’s intellectual property – its trademark – has been expropriated.

In the province of Quebec, Canada, the company Lone Pine is using NAFTA to challenge a recent law establishing a moratorium on fracking underneath the St. Lawrence Seaway until that government can review the environmental issues and develop appropriate protections. Lone Pine asserts its “property” has been expropriated and that the Quebec Parliament didn’t follow fair processes in passing the law – even though the company doesn’t even have a permit to frack under the St. Lawrence.

As envisioned by industry supporters and trade negotiators on both sides of the Atlantic, TTIP will include these same investor provisions that allow governments to be sued for millions of dollars by international corporations that simply don’t want to play by the rules. With respect to generic medicines, the intellectual property provisions that are being sought in the TPP and most likely will be pursued for TTIP will extend patents – monopoly pricing – on drugs and newer biologic medicines and delay access to less expensive generic versions. There are also proposals that are intended to restrict government actions that reduce or cap pharmaceutical prices in government health programs.

5) One of the EU's key 'offensive interests' in TTIP is to remove what they call 'discriminatory laws' that hinder European companies from bidding for procurement offers in US states. These laws are known under TTIP as "localisation barriers to trade". Why are these laws important for US states, and should they be a removed in TTIP?

In our state of Maine, which is a rather low-income state with limited economic opportunity (especially now that our textile and shoe factories have almost all moved offshore following NAFTA and other trade agreements), a bright spot is local food initiatives.  Our land use and procurement policies are encouraging young people to take up farming, and developing new markets for farmers to sell their produce to schools, hospitals, and other institutions.  We have enacted a GMO labeling law similar to that in effect in EU countries, and policies that encourage organic and niche farming. We have also enacted procurement laws – in effect for over a decade – which do not permit the purchase by our state government of products made pursuant to unfair labor practices, or where discrimination is permitted.  

We have decided as a society here in Maine, that we do not want our taxpayer dollars spent on products produced under bad working conditions. Recent trade agreements entered into by the U.S. government have given sub-central governments in the U.S. the option of being bound by some or all of the procurement chapters in those agreements.  We would support that approach, which would allow us to continue to support our local farm-to-table food initiatives (which are also improving the health of our residents!) while extending TTIP procurement to those products that meet our procurement standards.  

6) Other issues, such as climate change have been mentioned as possible losers under a EU - US trade deal. Could you highlight one or two of your other concerns?

Fossil fuel subsidies are embedded in the policies of countries on both sides of the Atlantic, and while trade agreements such as the WTO have been used to successfully challenge renewable, low-carbon policies like Ontario, Canada’s feed-in tariff law, these same provisions are not used to limit fossil fuel subsidies.  If this issue is not addressed in TTIP, it is expected that the agreement will lead to significantly increased carbon emissions.  Our policies addressing climate change are likely to be undermined by TTIP (and other trade agreements) unless we take action to address these backwards incentives and promote positive climate policies instead.

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