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24 June 2015

Bruised ‘Fast-track’ scrapes past US Senate, as outcry mirrored on both sides of the Atlantic

US Congress and European Parliament both wide-awake to trade concerns

Simon McKeagney, Editor

Proponents of TTIP often rush to cite anti-Americanism as the reason behind the mass opposition to the deal here in Europe. From statements by former and current Commissioners (see below) to dismissive articles rubbishing citizens genuine concerns, there is a coordinated effort to paint everyone with the anti-US brush.

Even the US ambassador to the EU, Anthony Gardner, has more recently gone a step further, pushing the idea that “the Kremlin hates this deal”, thus implying that anyone here in the EU with legitimate TTIP worries is a collaborator-by-default with the meddling Mr. Putin.

Of course, this anti-American scaremongering utterly falls asunder when some of America’s most beloved patriots loudly sound the alarm on the issues with deals like TTIP. Just this week, US Senator Elizabeth Warren wrote an Op-Ed for the Boston Globe, outlining many key concerns felt here in Europe:

‘… modern trade agreements are less about reducing tariffs and more about writing new rules for everything from labor, health, and environmental standards to food safety, prescription drug access, and copyright protections.’

She went on to note how Hillary Clinton recently called ISDS, “a fundamentally antidemocratic process.” In Brussels too, ISDS remains one of the most troublesome issues currently blocking progress on TTIP in Europe.

US Congress blockage mirrors hold-up in European Parliament

Nowhere is the debate so accurately mirrored as in our houses of parliament. On June 10, we witnessed extraordinary scenes in the plenary chamber in Strasbourg, as it became apparent that the two largest groups in the European Parliament, the centre-right EPP and centre left S&D, didn’t have the numbers to vote through a proposed opinion on TTIP, after months of committee work and thousands of amendments. Fearing defeat, President Schulz waded in, evoking procedural clauses to postpone the vote and delay the debate.

Greens/EFA MEP Yannick Jadot denounces suspension of vote and TTIP debate, June 10.

At the same time in the US, a similar story of procedural football over the last number of weeks has seen the ‘Fast Track’ bill bounce to and from the Senate and Congress, as Democrats use everything in the power to delay it. Fast Track or “Trade Promotion Authority” would automatically grant the President the right to negotiate trade deals like TTIP, without input from Congress for the next 6 years, allowing them only an up-down vote at the end of the negotiation process and no opportunity to amend the final text. Incidentally, in Europe we already have a permanent Fast Track; the Commission negotiates trade deals without textual input from elected representatives, and only an up-down vote at the end of the proceedings. This in itself is a root cause of the lack of trust in the process, and the numerous transparency issues that have dogged the talks to date.

The US experience of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, and the job-losses that followed, are still fresh in the minds of many US representatives, some of whom speak on behalf of constituents who were unlucky enough to pay the price for that deal. Democrats are reluctant to see a repeat of this, either in the soon-to-be finalised Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) or TTIP. They also fear the watering down of hard-won regulations that have come in since the financial crash in 2008. The Dodd-Frank Act, for instance, which put some controls on the banking and finance industry, is being eyed-up by the EU-side, who are proposing to include financial regulation in the TTIP talks. US negotiators have so far been opposed, understanding that it could undermine such new financial regulations.

Add this to the fear of further job-losses, the dominance of corporate-lobbying within the US Trade Representative setup, and a string of high-profile ISDS cases undermining social and environmental regulations, the fight brewing over trade in the US looks remarkably similar to the one here in Europe.

Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D) speaks against Fast Track in the House of Representatives, last week.

Fast track likely to squeeze past

In as strange a turn as Socialist & Democrat MEPs defending a deal that ultimately benefits big business in Europe, Obama has found himself completely at odds with his own party, siding instead with Republicans to get Fast Track over the line. Without it, the hopes of signing off on TTIP in the coming years, or the Trans-Pacific Partnership later this year, are unlikely.

Despite two attempts by the Senate to block Fast Track, as well as receiving little support by Democrats in Congress, procedural rigmarole has allowed the White House to steer the bill through both chambers. On Tuesday it passed another technical vote by the one single minimum voted needed, which all but approves Fast Track for Obama.

According to the New York Times, Senator Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, said:

“It is a great day for the big money interests, not a great day for working families.”

Back in Brussels, the non-binding resolution on TTIP has gone back to the committee on International Trade, who will need to decide the fate of 116 amendments on June 29, before it can go back to plenary for a vote. But after a raging public campaign, that left many MEPs in support of TTIP bruised, groups in the Parliament seem unable to reach an agreement, and it is not clear whether the resolution will reappear at plenary before the summer break.

Silver-lining: wide-awake to trade concerns

While Fast Track edges through in the US, and in Europe a resolution in support of TTIP may come to pass later this year, one thing is certain: gone are the days of broad, unthinking support for such trade agreements. Representatives and citizens are much more in tune with the finer details. In 2014, few knew what ISDS was, or how it could impact the daily lives of people. Now its inclusion in trade treaties can bring thousands out onto the streets, and delay entire parliamentary processes.

We can also say the following: opposition to TTIP is not pro-Russian, or anti-American, as much as the US ambassador would like us to return to the politics of the Cold War. It is the content of these deals, and the power of those pushing them, that leave many on both sides of the Atlantic concerned, and unnerved. And if you don’t believe us Europeans, why not ask Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman, Elizabeth Warren, Hillary Clinton, Jeffrey Sachs, Bernie SaundersBarney Frank or US NGOs and Trade Unions like Public Citizen or AFLCIO for a second opinion.

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On July 1, US guests will be in Europe to discuss all things TTIP. If you would like to attend, you can find the details here.

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