Trade debate reaches boiling point

European Parliament’s vote on an important trade resolution will shape the path of ‘trojan horse’ trade.

Activists gather in front of the Canadian parliament to protest against closed door negotiations between Canada and the European Union on a free trade deal [AFP]
Activists in front of the Canadian parliament protest against negotiations between Canada and the EU on a free trade deal [AFP]

On June 9, the European Parliament failed to agree on an important trade resolution and postponed voting on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) that the EU is negotiating with the US.

This highlights the growing divisions in the European Union about TTIP, and comes in the midst of an unprecedented global debate about the potential threats posed by so called “free” trade agreements, or “trojan horse” trade deals.

For many years, trade policy was conducted out of the public spotlight, reserved for technical specialists behind closed doors.

Yet trade affects our daily life in many ways and is too important an issue to be left to corporate lobbyists and policy bureaucrats.

US free trade deals face opposition

Increasingly, citizens are demanding answers, and news headlines focus on controversies surrounding  trade agreements almost daily (for instance in the past days on the BBCand in The Guardian).

‘Trojan horse’ deal with US

The three planned global trade agreements that are getting the most attention at the moment are the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), and the Trade in Services Agreement (TISA).

Together these would affect roughly 1.5 billion people and effectively set a “Gold Standard” for deregulation and investor rights, triggering a race to the bottom that might be copied in future trade deals.

In response to strong interest from the public and civil society organisations, the EU’s Executive Commission launched a public consultation on investor-to-state dispute settlement (ISDS) in trade deals.

ISDS enables foreign corporations to sue governments for millions of dollars in private and often secret tribunals, if those corporations deem their profits are affected by new laws or changes in policy.

This profound change in public sentiment is because these deals no longer have much to do with trade. Rather they are about reshaping and limiting the ability of governments to regulate in the public interest.


“The objective of the consultation was to seek views on a possible approach to investment protection and ISDS in the TTIP,” stated the European Commission.

And the results were resounding: 97 percent of the almost 150,000 responses expressed a clear “No” to ISDS and excessive investor protections.

In Germany in particular, the public mood on trade and investment has changed drastically over the last year. The more people seem to know about this “trojan horse” trade deal, the more they dislike it.

A recent YouGov poll showed that 43 percent of Germans believe that TTIP would be bad for the country, with only 26 percent of people seeing it as positive. 

Although German Chancellor Angela Merkel and others continue to promote TTIP as bringing $100 billion in economic benefits for Europe, people have stopped believing them.

Change in public sentiment

This profound change in public sentiment is because these deals no longer have much to do with trade. Rather they are about reshaping and limiting the ability of governments to regulate in the public interest.

Essential rights that protect citizens and the environment – such as regulations on pesticides or fuel quality controls – are considered as “trade barriers”.

For instance, on May 18, it was revealed that drafted EU regulations to ban 31 hormone-damaging pesticides linked to cancer were dumped due to pressure from US TTIP trade negotiators.

Across the Atlantic a similar trade debate is raging, and a similar coalition of trade unions, environmental groups and internet rights advocates are leading the fight against Obama’s corporate-driven trade agenda.

Even democrats are challenging their own president, with Senator Elizabeth Warren recently releasing a damning report, entitled “Broken Promises”, that highlights “Decades of Failure to Enforce Labour Standards in Free Trade Agreements”.

For example, since the 2009 US-Peru Trade Agreement, Peru reportedly weakened labour regulations to encourage foreign investment, continued to use child labour, and continued to export illegal timber from the Amazon.

Public spotlight and grassroots campaigning is making a real difference, and big business will not get its way so easily. On May 12, Obama’s trade legislation was shockingly defeated in the US Senate, with nearly every democrat voting against a bill that would give special powers to ‘fast track’ trade deals.

Yet just one week later, after extensive corporate and presidential lobbying, the Trade Priorities and Accountability Act passed in the Senate, 62 votes to 37. It now faces a very uncertain future in Congress, where liberal Democrats and conservative-libertarian Republicans are threatening to join forces to oppose the bill.

Global concern growing

Trade is no longer just an issue of the left, but increasingly of concern to the US right as well, who see it as unconstitutional and likely to destroy small businesses. Politics make strange bedfellows indeed.

It is not just in the US and Europe that the trade debate is heating up. In other parts of the world the public spotlight is firmly focused on corporate trade deals too.

In Uruguay, thousands of workers recently took to the streets to protest against their government joining the TISA trade negotiations. And down under in Australia, parliamentarians have formed a new cross-party group to raise concerns about the secret TPP deal.

It remains uncertain if our elected representatives will cave in to pressure from corporate interests or defend the rights of ordinary citizens and stop these trojan horse deals.

What is certain is that  the public is increasingly aware and more involved in  discussing the wide-ranging implications of these trade agreements – and that is a big step in the right direction.

Sam Cossar-Gilbert is economic justice and resisting neoliberalism coordinator at Friends of the Earth International.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.