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Brexit is not the answer to the new generation of free trade agreements

The cat is out of the bag – the publication last week of the LSE report on the Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provisions within the Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership (TTIP) commissioned by the Government has concluded that there’s nothing in for the UK.

To quote from the report: “we conclude that an EU-US investment treaty that does contain ISDS is likely to have few or no benefits to the UK, while having meaningful economic and political costs.”

In their conclusion the LSE authors make four clear points:

  • there is little reason to think that an EU-US investment chapter will provide the UK with significant economic benefits
  • there is little reason to think that an EU-US investment chapter will provide the UK with significant political benefits
  • there is some reason to expect an EU-US investment chapter will impose meaningful economic costs on the UK
  • there is some reason to expect an EU-US investment chapter will impose meaningful political costs on the UK

But which side, if any, of the ‘Remain’ or ‘Leave’ argument does the report bolster?

Those who advocate ‘Leave’ often cite the ‘free trade’ treaties currently being negotiated between the EU and the US, the Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership (TTIP), and the EU and Canada, the Comprehensive Economic & Trade Agreement (CETA), as reasons to leave. Specifically, the threat to public services posed by TTIP is often cited as the reason to go.

And yet in a recent Guardian article, Will Straw, of the Britain Stronger in Europe campaign, attempted to rebut former Gang of Four member David Owen’s assertion that the NHS was at threat from TTIP: “Lord Owen’s claims about the proposed trade deal with the US are utterly untrue. The UK government … and the EU are crystal clear that there are specific protections to ensure that the NHS would be unaffected by TTIP, which has the potential to increase jobs and growth in Britain.”

On the same day Rachel Reeves MP claimed on Labour List that “… anyone who studies both the detail and political intention of this deal [TTIP] can see that it poses no threat at all to our health service.”

“Anyone” clearly doesn’t extend to Michael Bowsher QC who has stated that: “Our conclusion is that TTIP poses a real and serious risk to future UKG [UK Government] decision-making in respect of the NHS”

Both Straw and Reeves are wrong. It is not the case that the Conservative Government has made the NHS ‘safe’ should the TTIP treaty ever be ratified. Nor have the European Commission’s negotiators made any special provision or protection for the NHS.

Essentially, TTIP is an issue that transcends ‘Remain’ or ‘Leave’ not least because TTIP is just one part of a network of new generation deregulatory free market/free trade deals being negotiated around the globe. For example, the treaty with Canada, CETA, may be signed very soon and would be equally as dangerous as TTIP, the ratification of which appears to be some way off.

President Obama’s assertion during his visit last month that the UK would be at “the back of the queue” for a free trade deal with the US if it left may be taken as not so subtle American support for the ‘Remain’ side as was the intervention of Lt-Gen Frederick 'Ben' Hodges, head of the US Army in Europe, who concluded that Brexit would apparently leave Europe weaker in the face of Russian expansionism.

The public views of Obama and Hodges are for a political purpose and not based on what will really happen.

Should Britain vote ‘Leave,’ Cameron, or whoever is leading the Government at that point, will attempt to open negotiations with the US on a separate bi-lateral trade treaty which will be equally as bad, if not worse, than the likely impact of TTIP on public services, health and safety, food and environmental standards and labour rights.

Campaigners have exposed the fact that the TTIP and CETA treaties contain these special legal provisions – ISDS – enabling multinational corporations to sue nation states in secret quasi-courts if the nation tilts the terms of trade away from the interests of business in favour of its citizens.

These corporate courts operate to protect the interests of foreign investors, making both governments and public bodies risk averse when it comes to public provision of services or a return to public ownership of those parts of the NHS the Tories have already privatised.

Again, referring back to the report: “… the impact of an EU-US investment treaty on UK policy space can be understood as the extent to which the treaty prevents the government of the day from adopting policies that the government would have preferred to adopt in the absence of the treaty.”

The anti TTIP campaigning has got the European Commission worried, particularly public disquiet with ISDS. Commissioner Cecilia Malmström is urgently promoting her so-called reform of ISDS – the Investor Court System (ICS), with open courts, appointed judges and an appeal mechanism.

We should not be taken in by the proposed reform, the ICS will still give rights to corporations not enjoyed by citizens; it would still make governments risk adverse about regulation in favour of workers and citizens that may be at the expense of the corporations.

We should also not be led to believe that a vote to ‘Leave’ is a vote against this new generation of free trade treaties, that a ‘Leave’ vote would be a vote against TTIP – which it will not be.

TTIP and CETA transcend ‘Remain’ or ‘Leave’ which is probably why the LSE report has not been seized upon by either side (campaigning group 38 Degrees has given the report publicity but not in a ‘Remain or ‘Leave’ context).

We will need to maintain the campaign against TTIP and CETA if the Referendum outcome is ‘Remain’; we will need to campaign against new UK bilateral investment treaties (BITs) if it’s to ‘Leave’.

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