Beyond TTIP: The Murky Pro-Corporate Trade Agenda is Bad For Our Health

by Diane Abbott

1 August 2016

In the run-up to the EU referendum, discussion of the threat posed by the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) to the NHS and Britain’s wider public sector moved from the shade of the NGOs and think-tanks, through the Overton window, and out into the fresh air of public debate.

Important but arcane issues were discussed, such as how TTIP’s procurement rules would force the NHS to contract out services, and the new rights afforded to private health companies to sue Britain for national public health policies that could harm their future profits.

But while I am thrilled that the secretly-constructed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the US and the EU has made headlines, I am concerned that Britain’s vote for Brexit will sap the fight against TTIP, which would affect us until we actually leave the Union.

Jeremy Corbyn has said that Labour would reject TTIP in its current form. But the UK is threatened by other trade deals such as the EU-Canada deal CETA, and the highly secretive Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA).

The Conservative government’s cheerleading of an unreformed TTIP suggests that after Brexit it will likely leave Britain with a bilateral US-UK trade deal that is even worse than TTIP.

The Tories pushed the abolition of rules for big banks, offering up the NHS for locked-in privatisation while refusing to release legal advice on the issue, and ensuring the deal was kept firmly in the dark.

Thankfully, TTIP has been subject to intense public opposition across Europe, putting its future in jeopardy. However, as I have previously written, due to the deal being conceived as a template to be imposed unilaterally on world trade, it is not just ‘Europeans’ who would feel the consequences of a completed TTIP.

Through the dystopian Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) private justice system, trade deals such as TTIP and CETA are, quite simply, charters for locking in deregulation of our social and health rules, the privatisation of public services and consolidating corporate power. They have profound implications for our ability to uphold human rights, fight climate change and bring about equitable and sustainable international development.

It is little wonder then that at the outset of TTIP negotiations, the European Commission applied a 30-year ban on public access to the deal’s key documents; or that when key texts were leaked earlier this year, it almost destroyed the deal.

World Health Organisation director Margaret Chan, who I met earlier this year, has spoken of the new global threats to health driven by factors including climate change, spiralling drug prices, increasing drug resistance and the “globalized marketing of unhealthy products.”

Chan argues: “Preventive efforts that aim to address these root causes [of new threats to health] often face fierce opposition from powerful economic operators, like the tobacco, alcohol, food, and beverage industries, and their equally powerful lobbies. Economic power readily translates into political power.”

Trade deals such as TTIP, CETA and TiSA are a key means by which this opposition gains traction – at the expense of global public health.

In this, the ISDS ‘corporate court’ mechanism is crucial: it grants big business the power to sue governments for policies affecting anticipated profits – it is nothing less than a form of “taxpayer-funded risk insurance for corporations” which must be abolished.

At every level of TTIP, we can see trade rules being used to undermine public health goals.

A key aim of the US is to ensure beef treated with growth hormones, including antibiotics, is no longer barred from entry to Europe by food regulations. The excessive non-clinical use of antibiotics in animal feed is at the heart of the crisis of antimicrobial resistance we now face.

Under the influence of pharmaceutical lobbyists, drug companies are using trade deals to extend patents on their drugs. Campaigners in the USA call the move “big pharma’s death sentence clause.”

Trade is also used to ensure countries cannot choose to run a public health service. After the Slovakian government won an election on a promise to nationalise health, it was successfully sued for doing so by a Dutch health insurance company accessing a deal between the Netherlands and Slovakia.

And under ISDS, we have seen corporations challenge public health legislation covering everything from sugar taxes to patents for drugs and the use of plain packaging on cigarettes.

Although TTIP appears to be on ice, our government’s complicity with the anti-democratic corporate trade agenda is continuing at full pace: fresh from the EU deciding last month that CETA must face votes in all EU national parliaments, the UK government confirmed that it supports the deal’s implementation before a vote.

Worse still, if CETA is agreed before any Brexit deal is completed, it will apply to the UK until we leave, meaning that a huge number of US corporations in Europe which also have offices in Canada will be free to use ISDS to sue the UK under CETA. And in a grotesque dilemma, if the deal isn’t applied before a parliamentary vote, ISDS protections for investments will last for 20 years – regardless of Brexit.

With a government bent on enforcing a pro-corporate trade agenda at the expense of the rights of citizens, public services and democracy itself, we have much to fight against – and for.

Photo: Greens EFA/Flickr

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