TTIP, who cares?

Posted on 19. December 2014

by Laura Virué Escalera

Laura VirueSpain needs three million jobs in the short term and yet an international agreement that promises to deliver 140.000 new jobs to Spain – albeit in a distant and uncertain future – does not seem to be a strong reason for the public opinion to wake up. Neither does the impending loss of civil rights hidden under this supposed antidote to the crisis, as some critics argue.

This is, in short, the framework in which the public debate on TTIP, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, currently being negotiated between the European Union and the United States, is developing in Spain. In my view, a very simplified debate, with little attention from the mass media. When it does appear in the media, journalists appeal to the fears instilled in our society by the financial crisis. Why is there so little information? Is the discussion deliberately being concealed?

Due to the lack of public debate, it is difficult to know the opinion of citizens or civic organisations. But since the summer of 2013, when the EU and the US announced the start of the negotiations, several green NGOs have been mobilising against the future agreement. From my point of view, their protest is based on a few alarming arguments.

As I’ve said before, the main arguments against the agreement are related to the worries born out of the consequences of the crisis:

  • the possible cuts in labour rights, based on the knowledge that the US has only signed two of the eight Conventions of the International Labour Organisation;
  • the further privatisation of public services, mainly in the sectors of health and education;
  • large companies and investors will have more privileges and could sue states, demanding millions in compensation for alleged ‘lost’ profits, or if they feel that their business is threatened by legislative changes or public authorities’ decisions. The complaints would be resolved in arbitration tribunals that are beyond any control, thus bypassing the state court systems.

The arguments related to health and safety regulations (food and medicines), which the NGO’s used to start the protest against the agreement, are not considered to be as important in Spain as they are in other countries in Central and Northern Europe. Maybe because the ‘GM vs organic’ issue is not a traditional topic in Spain. The powerful images of the ‘chlorine-bleached chicken’ or the transgenic plants that can catch people’s attention in other places cannot awake the interest of a big number of people in Spain.

I do wonder, however, how the TTIP agreement will affect the agricultural sector and the Spanish farmers, who’s produce is one of Spain’s main export products; they will have to compete with the US, where food products are grown in farms that are, on average, thirteen times bigger than their European counterparts and where concentration of agricultural production in large corporations is the dominant way of farming (currently there are two million American farms compared to thirteen million European farms). I find it shocking that nobody is asking for an explanation of how Spain is going to face this future reality.

Another contentious element is the supposed limitless implementation of fracking, a technique of gas extraction that is becoming very controversial in Spain.

In mid-November, a roundtable was held at the European Parliament Office in Madrid to explain the progress of the TTIP negotiations, in order to enhance transparency and the dialogue with civil society. Only two MEPs were invited as speakers; Santiago Fisas (Popular Party) and Inmaculada Sanchez Piñero (PSOE), both belonging to parties that are in favour of the agreement. This reveals a clear lack of plurality. Ignacio Samper, Director of the European Parliament Office in Spain, claimed that they were the only two Spanish regular members of the International Trade Commission, responsible for addressing trade issues in the European Parliament. The previous day, a survey with three simple questions was devised in the European Parliament Office in Madrid and put on their website to consult the public. There is no way to check how long the survey was open, but it’s no longer active, while the summary of the results doesn’t appear either.

Despite the Spanish Secretary of State for Trade declaring that the signing of TTIP is thé trade priority for Spain, this issue appears to be non-existent in Spanish politics or the media. If you search for news related to TTIP in the digital library of the four main newspapers in Spain, you won’t find more than a couple of articles in the last two months. The intent of these articles is, in most cases, to echo the same issues: the lack of transparency and access to the documentation of negotiations. But they never analyse or explain any technical aspect of this complex issue. I doubt whether it has even been in the headlines or on the TV news.

In contrast to other political parties, Izquierda Unida has openly joined the mobilisation against the treaty, as did Podemos, which has no representation in the Spanish Parliament but does have five Members in the European Parliament. They are using a lot of social media to highlight the threats, but that entails the risk of falling into a useless and alarmist discourse due to the intrinsic characteristics of social media, with encourages a lot of exchange of views but very little reflection.

From my personal point of view, opening up borders to allow for more free trade is always positive. Although EU and US tariffs are already quit low, the reduction of the number of technical barriers to trade will enormously facilitate the exchange of goods and services and would benefit many sectors.

What is certain is that all state, regional and local authorities will have to redefine their public policies on food, insurance, drug prices, energy, copyrights, natural resources, etc. Therefore, we must demand that high levels of transparency and communication are maintained throughout the negotiations so that the citizens can be constantly informed and are able to participate in the debate.

For the moment and as journalist Joaquín Estefanía said: “We will have to suspend final judgment on the merits of TTIP until the fine print of it is known. The experience of other negotiations indicates that consensus was achieved on the lowest common denominator of affairs.” Consequently, we should demand from our representatives to not run a ‘race to the bottom’. The fear is that, politicians, encouraged by the possibility of economic growth, will once again approve agreements that do not protect citizens, consumers, or SMEs, and are in favour of large multinational corporations and lobby groups.