TPP: for informed talks on trade, show us the text!

Democrat Congresswoman Elizabeth Warren has written that “if the American people would be opposed to a trade agreement if they saw it, then that agreement should not become the law of the United States.”

She is right. But President Obama, who went beyond the call of duty on his country’s trade agenda, accused those who oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) of being “dishonest”. He addressed a public comment particularly to Elizabeth Warren calling her arguments “wrong”.

The TPP encompasses a dozen of countries in the Asia Pacific region covering a large part of world population and GDP. It is being negotiated since 2010 in secret - and saying that doesn’t make me dishonest - even if President Obama wants to believe that there is nothing secret about it.

The truth is that trade negotiations have traditionally taken place in secret and there were good reasons for this.

Trade has winners and losers. In negotiations governments are often in the difficult position of giving up tariff protection of, say, the ceramics sector to gain access to a new market for their, say, paper makers.

If negotiations were public, the ceramics producers would not be happy. From a political point of view, acceptance of the agreement would become more difficult, if those who were to lose, knew about it.

Businesses enjoy different levels of access to the texts and in many cases they dictate to their governments what to do. There is no great conspiracy though.

In the absence of reliable and solid data on economic performance in the globalised economy, the governments believe that in order to promote their national economic interests, they have to ask their national champions what to do. If the industry does well, the economy grows and together with it incomes and jobs, one would argue.

But in today’s world, where prosperity doesn’t automatically trickle down to the citizens, listening only the big guys can lead to quite unbalanced decisions.

Indeed, many SMEs and small producers have asked for more information and pleaded caution.

For example, in the context of Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership Agreement (TTIP), the Irish Farmers’ Association believe that they won’t be able to weather competition from US agro-corporations.

The international trade union movement asked for the negotiations to be held with public access, so that the agreement has a chance to be balanced and advance the interests and prosperity of all citizens.

Today’s trade agreements under negotiation like the TPP and its siblings, the EU-Japan FTA and the TTIP, do not deal with tariffs simply because there are hardly any left.

They are about establishing regulatory cooperative mechanisms that would align standards between countries, putting restraining rules on state-owned enterprises, consolidating financial markets, extending medicine patents and a long other corporate agenda.


Public participation

This is a reason why the negotiating texts need to be made public, and this needs to be done early on. It is due to the nature of the so-called 21st century agreements, that we need much more time, new economic models and more people analysing them.

Labour, civil society and parliaments have to rely on leaks and unofficial documents in order to be able to provide some analysis as to whether the interests and prosperity of all citizens are going to be served.

The so-called 21st century agreements are a bit more open to public participation than the older ones.

Stakeholders’ engagement events during negotiating rounds give an opportunity to civil society actors to meet with negotiators and make presentations to them.

We are heard. But having participated in some of these discussions, I do not think that we are being listened to.

Leaks and unofficial information show that the governments are ignoring the input by unions and civil society.

After years of reaffirmation of initial suspicions, the union movement called for the negotiations to halt. The civil society that had not opposed TPP from the beginning, is doing so now.

It seems that our opinion is not important to our governments. The concerns of small enterprises are not taken into account either. Trade officials ask companies with significant weight to draw their negotiating strategy. Some of them will push the revolving door and move into corporations after the negotiations are over.

Except from raising awareness about it, trade union centres from around the Asia Pacific launched a petition to ‘bombard’ the mailboxes of trade ministers asking them to stop the negotiations and to release the negotiating texts.

To benefit workers and create shared prosperity, secretive negotiations and extraordinary approval procedures that extinguish debate must be replaced by an open, democratic process.

If the new trade agreements are about to create buckets of new wealth and new jobs as President Obama and other supporters claim, then there should be really no reason why the negotiating texts, certainly those that do not deal with market access, are concealed with secrecy.