The biggest US-EU free trade agreement in history is advancing behind closed doors

Hazel Sheffield

20 April 2015

Secret negotiations between the US and EU for the biggest bilateral trade agreement ever negotiated resume on April 20 in New York. The talks are attracting increasing criticism as activists guess at the proposals while politicians keep the details behind closed doors.

The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership is a massive new trade deal, expected to be completed in the next few months, that would cut tariffs on imported goods between the two powers while standardising safety rules.

That might mean Scottish manufacturers can sell woollen jumpers in the US cheaply, while give US brands direct access to the EU market. Critics say it could reduce European safety standards and allow the privatisation of services such as the NHS.

But we cannot sure, because the negotiations occur behind closed doors. One MEP told the Guardian [1] she had to sign a document of some 14 pages, reminding her that 'EU institutions are a valuable target' and of the dangers of espionage. She also had to agree not to share any of the contents with her constituents.

Karel de Gucht, the former European minister for trade, has denied that the talks are secret. [2] He said no agreement would become law before it had been thoroughly examined and signed off by the US government and 28 EU council constituents.

Activists are mobilising against the treaty nonetheless. Thousands took to the streets in major European cities like Madrid and Brussels on Sunday to protest against the latest round of talks. [3] A crowd of 23,000 gathered in Munich.

The most controversial part of the deal (that we know about) is a clause that would give corporations the right to sue governments, effectively putting them above national law. Even in the US, critics have been outspoken [4] about the potential for an agreement to undermine state and local laws.

One of the reasons we do know a bit about the contents of the agreement is due to a leaked draft from February. The draft contained a clause stating the EU reserves the right to adopt or maintain any measure with regard to the provision of all health services that receive public health funding or State support in any form -- words the government said will protect the NHS from privatisation.

The Labour party and the Scottish Green party have said that the language of the clause is too vague to guarantee protection. They are calling for the NHS to be named in the text as exempt.

Unite's Scottish regional secretary Pat Rafferty has said that the clause in the leaked agreement would put the NHS at risk of a sell-off.

"This means that American investors in NHS services that are privatised now or in the future will be able to use TTIP to sue the government if it tries to bring them back into public hands," Rafferty told the BBC in February.

But the NHS is not the only concern. The EU said the agreement could add around 0.5 per cent to its annual economic output. It could also open EU markets to genetically modified food that is banned at the moment or loosen US regulation on banking to bringing it more in line with UK rules. It might result in job losses as employers switch to the US, where trade unions are less powerful.

Activists are mobilising against it on the continent but they have no power to affect the discussions -- or clear idea of exactly what they are about.