A glacier is poised to roll over Europe. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – known affectionately as TTIP – will lead to an ice age for democracy and consumer rights. Frozen national governments will be helpless to prevent corporate wolves and sabre-toothed tigers from ravaging the NHS and our healthy, indigenous market in organic food. Savour the taste of your horsemeat burger whilst you can – it’s soon to be replaced by chlorine-flavoured chicken nuggets!
The chlorine-flavoured chicken appears to be the winning card in this game, slapped down in triumph during every alarmist account of TTIP. In America, it seems, they wash processed chickens in chlorine to remove the taste and odour of chickenshit. I feel that if I can deal a fatal blow to the chlorine-flavoured chicken then the whole debate will be over. So yes, in the future, American multinational corporations with all of their labyrinthine regulations and institutionalised terror of litigation will really serve us chicken which tastes of bleach. Yes, they really will dear reader. And your children will have to eat it and then they will be rolling around on the carpets of your home in agony, their little mouths frothing with chemical poison. This is the level of maturity that we are presently at over TTIP.
But maybe you’re extremely brave and you’re not going to chicken out of TTIP just because of some disinfected poultry. You’re clearly a difficult nut to crack, and so let’s wheel out the NHS. Yes, they’re going to privatise the NHS. Again! It echoes down the decades, with this service being reprivatised every second year. Alas, on each occasion that “wolf” is cried, the masses never really seem to stir themselves to action. In fact, the NHS is now privatised as frequently as Kenny had died in old episodes of South Park. Oh my god, they’ve privatised the NHS! You bastards!
There are legitimate concerns about TTIP, one of which is the proposed Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS). This would reportedly set up courts to arbitrate in disputes between “investors” (i.e. corporations) and states. The courts would not only be independent of national ones, but more sympathetic to the corporations since one of their three judges would be handpicked by them. Opponents of TTIP sometimes try to make out that the state shouldn’t have to obey the law in its dealings with corporations. The Swedish energy company Vattenfall, for example, whose services were dispensed with after Germany had decommissioned its nuclear power stations, is condemned by the anti-TTIP lobby for suing for compensation/ vengeance. In reality, the German state signed the contracts with Vattenfall and it will be probably dependent upon this company, or companies like it, in the future when it has to open its nuclear power stations again. No legal process can redress the imbalance of power which already exists between the state and giant private providers since the relationship between them is a matter of politics, not legality. And indeed Vattenfall has already struck back under the present arrangements.
We here reach the nub of the problem for the opponents of TTIP, most of whom are on the “anti-globalisation” faction of the Left. If the modern Left had maintained a principled defence of democratic sovereignty from the very beginning, then they would be on solid ground when criticising TTIP. But so much of what they find objectionable in TTIP has been essentially legitimised by the lack of any serious challenge to the institutions of the European Union. And the Left is, of course, largely known for cosying up to the EU and for coming down hard on those who they call “Euro-sceptics” and who I call “democrats.”
On the website of the campaign group Stop TTIP so much of what they are trying to “stop” about TTIP has already smuggled itself past them in the form of the EU. They claim that “TTIP would have enormous effects on our democracy, the rule of law, consumer and environmental protection.” In other words, just as the EU has done. They claim that “negotiations are conducted in secret. Even our public representatives know little if anything about their progress.” Yet around 90% of European legislation already passes through the Committee of Permanent Representatives (Coprepor), nationally-appointed officials who meet in secret. As the historian James Heartfield has noted, Coprepor’s documents “are classed as “non-papers” to exempt them from the European Union’s open access to documents rule.” Stop TTIP are worried that TTIP’s rules would be “irreversible,” when nothing that the EU comes out with can be reversed by national parliaments. They complain that “regulatory cooperation would restrict and impede the freedom to negotiate of the legislator, whether parliament or people, whether at state or federal level.” As if EU regulations do not already restrict and impede the freedom of the parliaments that we vote for!
In the ongoing war of the groceries, a lot of the current scaremongering about chlorinated chicken and hormone-treated beef offers an inverse reflection of the right-wing nightmare about EU-imposed non-bendy bananas and overregulated vegetable shapes. The Left’s travails over TTIP are likewise a through-the-looking-glass image of what has befallen the UK’s leading pro-democracy party UKIP. The Guardian writer Owen Jones has mocked UKIP for prevaricating on TTIP and for being lured by free trade to renege on their usual denunciations of “faceless bureaucrats.” For Jones it is all very easy: “It was never about sovereignty. The right is more than happy to surrender British sovereignty to corporations.”
UKIP has walked right into this one, but Jones is more prone to urging that the Left should “find its voice” on the EU than to himself ever shouting at the top of his. When Nigel Farage finally puts out a belated statement that “UKIP is in favour of free trade but we are opposed to the undemocratic Commission negotiating on our behalf” this still carries more urgency and credibility than Jones’ wistful overtures. Jones’ appreciative mention of his Guardian colleague George Monbiot, for “crusading” against TTIP, soon runs up against Monbiot’s unsoundness on the question of democratic sovereignty. Monbiot ducks this, somewhat paradoxically, in a comment below his article about TTIP’s “full frontal assault on democracy”:
This is on a whole different scale. The fuss about the EU overriding sovereign legislation has been misdirected. What the corporate press has asked us to focus on and contest are the directives strengthening consumer protection, human rights and the defence of the natural world. But those don’t threaten us. It’s the powers threatening to undo consumer protection, human rights and the defence of the natural world we should be concerned about.
So our democracy can just go to the dogs if another political system is likely to strengthen our consumer rights better than our own. I’m not sure if this qualifies as “full frontal,” but it’s still pretty hard on democracy.
I’d like to hear a lot more about TTIP. David Cameron claims that TTIP will create “two million extra jobs,” whilst Stop TTIP reply that, “in agriculture and in the electrical industry, massive job losses are threatened because of the tougher competition from abroad.” They might both be right, of course, but I’ve seen very little commentary that deals explicitly with the question of what we, the recession-battered masses, are likely to get out of TTIP. Scotland will be surely allowed to export more of its goods to America, but what will we get in return? One wishes that the commentary upon TTIP could be a little more educational. Of course, the detail of the negotiations is being kept secret, but this doesn’t prevent economists from venturing different models of conceivable trading partnerships.
Presumably we will some day leave the EU, and this will require us to enter into a trade agreement with America which might very well impinge upon our sovereignty. After all, UKIP harks back to an idealised time when the EU was a mere trading pool. The case stands that if we left the EU and we remained somehow magically eligible to conclude the TTIP deal, our country would have still experienced a massive boost in democratic sovereignty. This makes TTIP a very little fish and there are bigger ones to fry.