Stop TAFTAOctober, 28 2015
As far as trade agreements are concerned, the recent focus here on Techdirt and elsewhere has been on TPP as it finally achieved some kind of agreement — what kind, we still don’t know, despite promises that the text would be released as soon as it was finished. But during this time, TPP’s sibling, TAFTA/TTIP, has been grinding away slowly in the background. It’s already well behind schedule — there were rather ridiculous initial plans to get it finished by the end of last year — and there’s now evidence of growing panic among the negotiators that they won’t even get it finished by the end of President Obama’s second term, which would pose huge problems in terms of ratification.
One sign of that panic is that the original ambitions to include just about everything are being jettisoned, as it becomes clear that in some sectors — cosmetics, for example — the US and EU regulatory approaches are just too different to reconcile. Another indicator is an important leaked document obtained by the Guardian last week. It’s the latest (29 September) draft proposal for the chapter on sustainable development. What emerges from every page of the document, embedded below, is that the European Commission is now so desperate for a deal — any deal — that it has gone back on just about every promise it made (pdf) to protect the environment and ensure that TTIP promoted sustainable development. Three environmental groups — the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth Europe and PowerShift — have taken advantage of this leak to offer an analysis of the European Commission’s real intent in the environmental field. They see four key problems:
The leaked text fails to provide any adequate defense for environment-related policies likely to be undermined by TTIP. For example, nothing in the text would prevent foreign corporations from launching challenges against climate or other environmental policies adopted on either side of the Atlantic in unaccountable trade tribunals.
The environmental provisions are vaguely worded, creating loopholes that would allow governments to continue environmentally harmful practices. The chapter lacks any obligation to ratify multilateral agreements that would bolster environmental protection and includes a set of vague goals with respect to biological diversity, illegal wildlife trade, and chemicals.
The leaked text includes several provisions that the European Commission may claim as “safeguards,” such as a recognition of the “right of each Party determine its sustainable development policies and priorities” but none would effectively shield environmental policies from being challenged by rules in TTIP.
There is no enforcement mechanism for any of the provisions mentioned in the text. Even if one were included, it would still be weaker than the enforcement mechanism provided for foreign investors either through the investor-state dispute settlement mechanism or the renamed investment court system.
The environmental groups have produced a detailed five-page document (pdf) that goes through each of these points in turn, and it’s well-worth reading. But it’s striking that the central problem is Techdirt’s old friend, corporate sovereignty, aka investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS):
Nothing in the text would prevent foreign corporations, on either side of the Atlantic, from challenging climate or other environmental policies via an “investor-state dispute settlement” (ISDS) mechanism or via the European Commission’s proposed “Investment Court System.” Both enable foreign investors to challenge environmental policies before a tribunal that would sit outside any domestic legal system and be able to order governments to compensate companies for the alleged costs of an environmental policy. While the Commission claims that its new investment “reforms” would protect the right to regulate, States could still be “sued” if foreign investors considered that a policy change violated the broad, special rights that the Commission’s “reformed” investment proposal would give them.
In other words, at the heart of the European Commission’s philosophy is the implicit acceptance that investors’ rights take precedence over the public’s rights — in this case, those concerning the environment. Everything in the leaked sustainable chapter is couched in terms of aspirations — the US and EU are encouraged to do the right thing as far as sustainable development is concerned, but there are few, if any, obligations or enforcement mechanisms. When it comes to protecting investors, on the other hand, everything is compulsory, backed up by supranational tribunals that can impose arbitrarily large fines, payable by the public. Although it is true that governments are given the “right” to legislate as they wish when it comes to the environment, investors are given the “right” to sue those governments black and blue if they attempt to do so.
Nor is this mere theory. Research carried out last year by Friends of the Earth Europe shows that of the 127 known ISDS cases that have been brought against 20 EU member states since 1994, fully 60% concern environment-related legislation. In other words, if the European Commission’s proposals or something like them became part of the final TTIP agreement, it would almost guarantee a torrent of litigation aimed at blocking or neutering environmental legislation on both sides of the Atlantic.
This is an important leak because it reveals, once more, that a central problem of TAFTA/TTIP is the corporate sovereignty that is inherent in ISDS — the fact that companies are allowed to place the preservation of their future profits above any other consideration, such as the environment, health and safety or social goals. The EU’s sustainability chapter — an area that is widely recognized as increasingly important in a world where lack of sustainability poses all kinds of problems — is framed entirely in outdated, 20th-century terms: boosting trade and maximizing profits are the only metrics that matter. The European Commission’s willing embrace of that approach confirms both its contempt for the 500 million Europeans it supposedly serves, and the fact that, far from protecting the environment, TAFTA/TTIP is shaping up to be a very toxic trade deal.