A Dispatch From Strasbourg: How The EU's TTIP Vote Collapsed

The European Parliament was asked to pass a resolution on 10 June that would have given the EU trade commissioner Cecilia Malmström a boost to her efforts to complete the secretly negotiated EU-USA trade deal, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

Along with other civil society representatives, I travelled to Strasbourg to remind MEPs that over two million people have signed a European Citizens’ Initiative rejecting TTIP and the parallel EU-Canada deal, CETA. If MEPs wished to maintain any credibility, we told them, they must vote down the pro-TTIP resolution. 

The intense pressure built up by campaigners over the past weeks was effective. The pro-TTIP German social democrats who control the parliament’s agenda were so rattled that they cancelled the vote at the last minute. They then allowed an 8am motion to go through from the parliament’s conservative group blocking any further debate on TTIP, even before some MEPs had realised the motion had been presented. This was not democracy’s finest hour.

The parliament was abuzz with questions as to why its president, Martin Schulz of Germany’s Social Democratic Party, stopped the vote. The official reason of too many amendments was dismissed by all sides as a smokescreen. Parliamentary procedures were perfectly capable of dealing with the vote.

In reality, the social democrats are in crisis over their support for TTIP, and deeply divided over the inclusion of the Investor-State Dispute Settlement mechanism that would allow US corporations to sue EU member states for loss of profits resulting from public policy measures. ISDS is the lightning rod for the current wave of protest against TTIP, even though many of the agreement’s other elements are equally dangerous.

MEPs have come under intense pressure from civil society to speak out against ISDS, including the ‘new’ version proposed last month by Cecilia Malmström with its minimal, cosmetic reforms. Several Labour MEPs have committed themselves publicly to voting against TTIP if it includes any form of ISDS.

The German leaders of the social democrat group seem oblivious to these concerns, and to the reputational damage that their unquestioning support for TTIP is causing MEPs in their sister parties. Internal meetings have become increasingly acrimonious as French and British MEPs complained to the group’s leaders that they are under attack from their constituents and from trade unions for supporting the TTIP negotiations. The Germans, by contrast, are playing a higher game trying to hold together a ‘grand coalition’ with the powerful conservative and liberal groups in the European Parliament.

In the final analysis, however, Martin Schulz was unable to satisfy his masters in the grand coalition and at the same time respond to the concerns of his fellow social democrat MEPs.

If he had allowed the vote on the TTIP resolution to go ahead, he would have had to quash a rebellion from social democrats who had formed their own coalition with more radical groups from left and right in an amendment deleting ISDS from TTIP. If the anti-ISDS amendment had succeeded, Schulz’s partners in the grand coalition would have voted down the entire resolution, fatally undermining his authority.

MEPs must abandon the delusion that their support for the TTIP process will enable them to craft a ‘good’ TTIP or a ‘TTIP for the people’By cancelling the vote he avoided either eventuality, but failed to address the underlying problem. Instead, the parliament’s trade committee was told to take back the resolution and try again.

As more and more details emerge showing how TTIP will cause significant social and environmental damage, it becomes increasingly impossible for progressive politicians to maintain their support for the deal.

The conservative and liberal groups have no difficulty in backing free trade and investment agreements that are designed to benefit business. The social democrats, by contrast, are supposed to stand for labour rights and a more equitable form of capitalism. Any support for TTIP looks like a betrayal of their values.

MEPs must abandon the delusion that their support for the TTIP process will enable them to craft a ‘good’ TTIP or a ‘TTIP for the people’, as some have tried to claim. TTIP is expressly designed to subordinate all higher social and environmental values to the free market, removing ‘regulatory barriers’ that might prevent corporations from maximising their profits, even if that conflicts with the needs of people or the planet. Any talk of using the negotiations to raise standards or set positive rules for the global economy is a fantasy.

While debate raged in the European Parliament, the US Congress was going through its own TTIP contractions. The US debate has centred on the ‘fast track’ powers that President Obama needs if he is to negotiate TTIP to its conclusion without referring every line to Congress for approval. The bill preparing this Trade Promotion Authority passed the Senate, but there were huge doubts that it could pass the House of Representatives – not least because the same power would also apply to the parallel Trans-Pacific Partnership that the USA is negotiating with Asian and Latin American nations, which is seen as an even greater threat than TTIP.

In a surprise move, Obama called for a vote on fast track in the House of Representatives on 12 June, just two days after the European debacle, and turned up himself in Congress to plead for the support of his fellow Democrats. They refused to back him, and delivered what many US commentators were quick to describe as the most serious defeat of his presidency. US trade unions had mobilised huge opposition to the fast track vote, and Obama fell way short of the numbers he needed. It was a nasty blow.

Giving TTIP the green light now in the hope of stopping it at the eleventh hour is a recipe for disasterWe are far from the end of the story on TTIP, as negotiations still have years to run before they have any chance of reaching a deal. The campaign is making the talks more toxic with every passing day, and many national parliamentarians are now trying to distance themselves from the agreement due to its growing unpopularity with their constituents. People power is taking effect.

Yet we need to remain vigilant for every new attempt to secure support for TTIP from the European Parliament, Congress or any other body. In particular, we need to resist the calls from those who would have us engage with the TTIP process in order to win the ‘best deal possible’. Giving TTIP the green light now in the hope of stopping it at the eleventh hour is a recipe for disaster.

We have the power to defeat TTIP entirely and to demand an alternative trade politics in the service of people and the planet. For this, we will continue to maintain a strong international campaign of outright opposition to TTIP, CETA and all other free trade deals. The people have spoken; the politicians would do well to listen.

John Hilary is Executive Director of War on Want and author of The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership: A Charter for Deregulation, An Attack on Jobs, An End to Democracy.

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