Tackling trade in the Fast Track - a report from the USA
22 April 2015
I'm in the USA for the next round of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations in New York, and it's certainly a busy week for trade policy.
There was a pivotal two-day negotiation with Japan on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) which looked at sensitive issues such as motor vehicle tariffs and rice imports and exports. And there was the week-long negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) happening in New York - which is why I am here.
To round things off in Washington DC, both Congress and the Senate will be debating (and possibly voting on) the hugely controversial Fast Track bill that Obama needs to realistically be able to conclude TPP and TTIP before the end of his tenure in the White House.
Yesterday in DC, civil society groups held a lively protest against Fast Track. While groups in London focused on TTIP last Saturday as part of the global day of action against free trade deals, US activists were focusing on Fast Track. The bill is an attempt to allow the president to commit the US to trade agreements whilst denying Congress the right to amend any text in the agreement or the chance to filibuster the debate so it never gets discussed or voted on, speeding up the process and handing over huge power to the president. There's widespread opposition from Republican congressmen who want every reason to trip up the Democrat president as an election nears, through to Democrat representatives who see the problems these deals bring with them. Further afield the AFL-CIO (the US equivalent of the TUC) is outspoken in its opposition, along with civil society and grassroots groups and activists.
Obama is making concessions in the Fast Track bill to win support, by promising a human rights consideration aspect to the process, but he still has some distance to go to secure a sure-fire majority.
We heard this week that half of all committees of the European parliament that have met to discuss the controversial Investor Protection mechanism (ISDS) in TTIP are opposed to its inclusion, which reinforces the impression that the whole TTIP process is experiencing turbulence. Recent efforts of the EU negotiators to convince us that they're not the types of people who will offer up our democratic rights on the altar of free trade with the US are motivated by their desire to get the process back on track, rather than some benign inclusivity.
This became very apparent last night in a seminar organised the the Columbia University Centre for Sustainable Investment which featured Colin Brown, the lead EU negotiator responsible for ISDS. In his initial talk he acknowledged the 60,000 people on the streets of Europe on the 18 April day of action. He also admitted that the scale of the opposition to ISDS has a bearing on the negotiations and that it is possible (he wouldn't give any odds) that the final agreement might possibly end up without investor protection. I smelt blood.
It's been a good start to my time in the US. There's still a packed agenda of meetings and public events in the next few days. Today, Wednesday, we're meeting with student activists at New York University, we have talks with health groups over the impact of TTIP and other free trade agreements and meeting other activists in the evening. Tomorrow is the stakeholders' briefing by the negotiators of both the EU and US, before we head to Washington DC for meetings with civil society groups. It is crucial that the campaign to stop TTIP builds links between campaigners in the EU and the US.
Watch this space for more news from the other side of the pond.