On 10 June 2016, Liverpool University’s Economic Governance and Human Rights Units organised a joint conference with the title ‘Making Sense of TTIP? Trade, Competition, Regulation, Human Rights & Democracy’. We thought that TTIP was highly relevant to public interest due to its potentially significant effect on many public policies, including health and food safety, as well as democracy and state sovereignty. Yet, partially because of the secrecy surrounding the negotiations between the US and the EU; and partially because of the technical nature of the subject, there has been very little informed public discussion of TTIP and how it may affect the lives of European citizens.
This is particularly the case in the UK, whereas the public is a lot more active and informed in some other European countries, such as Germany, France and the Netherlands, particularly in the light of these countries’ civil societies’ deep engagement in the now informal European Citizens’ Initiative against the TTIP. Furthermore, the release of negotiation documents by Greenpeace Netherlands showed that critics of the TTIP might be right in many respects, including intense business lobbying and the privileged access of multinational corporations to TTIP negotiations. Also, TTIP played a central role in the Brexit debate, as some saw TTIP as a reason for the UK to leave the European Union, whereas others feared that this would only result in a bilateral and more severe trade agreement between the EU and US.
In the light of all these, we thought that it was particularly timely to bring academics, activists, politicians and citizens together with the aim of shedding light on this increasingly contentious and highly relevant subject. We chose the speakers of the day carefully to have a balanced discussion that is also accessible to citizens. In order to publicise the conference to public we liaised with local political groups, canvassed local pubs and cafes and gave an interview to BBC Radio Merseyside, which attracted significant public attention.
These efforts paid off incredibly well on the day. The conference was well attended particularly by citizens who engaged with the debate until the end of the day by asking informed and difficult questions and making imaginative and sophisticated comments. The conference also had a very strong online presence with hundreds of tweets coming with the hash tag #TTIPConf2016. Videos of all presentation are also available on YouTube.
Keynote speaker of the day was Mr Fabio de Masi, Member of the European Parliament for die Linke and GUE/NGL. Mr de Masi’s keynote speech was informed by his experiences of the TTIP negotiations as member of the European Parliament’s Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee. In his speech, Mr de Masi argued that the key issue about TTIP is not trade but a democratic government’s right to regulate its public services. Whilst pointing out to potential dangers arising to public interest from TTIP, on a more positive note, Mr de Masi also emphasised that this was a moment of mass mobilisation in Europe particularly in the light of the European Citizens’ Initiative against TTIP. According to Mr de Masi this public interest in trade should be kept alive, even if TTIP fails, because the international trade agenda imposes the same risks, for instance in the context of CETA. Thus, Mr de Masi urged citizens in the room to follow developments closely, because all parts of Europe, including Liverpool, will be affected by what the future holds.
After Mr de Masi’s keynote speech, the first panel discussed TTIP’s implications for public policies and rights. Rob Howse (New York University) opened the first panel with an historical account of trade agreements from the embedded liberalism of GATT to the neoliberalism of TTIP. Prof Howse also argued that secret trade negotiations are not sustainable in the twenty first century.
Prof Howse’s talk was followed by Korina Raptapoulou’s (University of London) analysis of the TTIP’s potential implications on the UK’s National Health Service (NHS). Since the privatisation of healthcare through the backdoor is one of the most feared aspects of TTIP in the UK, Dr Raptapoulou’s talk attracted a vibrant discussion. She argued that all privately funded health services will be subject to TTIP; and that, as a result of TTIP, private healthcare providers might artificially choose the most profitable products and services leaving certain healthcare products and services undersupplied. She further argued that to avoid this outcome, all NHS services should be exempt from TTIP in their entirety.
Keith Ewing (KCL) addressed TTIP’s potential effects on labour rights, another subject highly relevant to public interest. In his talk, Prof Ewing argued that international trade agreements hardly ever raise labour standards, because in these agreements countries commit to standards that they are already in breach of, such as the International Labour Organization standards. Prof. Ewing also argued that TTIP represents a clash between social Europe and neoliberal America and that it might result in the weakening of European collective bargaining standards if American companies rely on antidiscrimination provisions.
In the closing talk of the first panel, Barnali Choudhury (UCL) discussed TTIP’s human rights implications particularly in the context of gender. Drawing parallels from previous international trade cases, such as the EC hormones and plain tobacco packaging cases, Dr Choudhury argued that international trade results in highly gendered human rights abuses and that gender clauses in trade agreements favour investors and not ordinary women, who might be victims of international trade.
Second panel of the conference focused on TTIP’s effects on citizenship, democracy and justice. In the opening speech, John Hilary (War on Want) highlighted the unequal access of business lobbyists and civil society organisations to TTIP negotiations. Criticising the secrecy surrounding negotiations, Mr Hilary argued that if TTIP were to the benefit of the public, negotiators would be shouting about it from rooftops. Referring to TTIP’s role in the Brexit debate, he also argued that even if TTIP and CETA fail they raise serious questions about European democracy and who really governs Europe.
Paul O’Connell (SOAS) addressed the connection between TTIP and the capitalist economic and political system from a more fundamental perspective in his speech. Dr O’Connell argued that TTIP in essence is about how power is distributed in a capitalist system and that it locks the crises of capitalism.
In the same panel, Gabriel Siles-Brügge (University of Warwick) provided a more holistic picture of TTIP and regulation arguing that the regulatory cooperation chapter constitutes the very heart of TTIP. He also argued that the so-called ‘good regulatory practices’ imposed on the EU by the US could make EU authorities more vulnerable to business lobbying. Referring to the Brexit related point made by John Hilary, Dr Brügge also argued that Brexit would not provide a solution to TTIP, since the UK might end up signing a more draconian bilateral trade deal with the US.
In the closing talk of the second panel, Ntina Tzouvala (University of Melbourne) discussed TTIP’s effects on global justice. Dr Tzouvala argued that international trade agreements polarise the Global North and the Global South into different trade blocks and that TTIP will cause trade diversions for the Global South. Dr Tzouvala’s speech was followed by a vibrant discussion on TTIP, democracy, justice and citizenship.
The third panel of the day addressed the highly contentions investor-state dispute settlement system (ISDS) in the context of the TTIP. In the opening talk, Nick Dearden (Global Justice Now) argued that the key problem with ISDS is the fact that it opens a parallel and more advantageous legal system to corporations compared with citizens. Mr Dearden also highlighted the fact that the US has never lost a trade case against Canada, which might be a warning sign of what could happen if the UK were to sign a bilateral trade agreement with the US.
Paul von Mühlendahl (Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLB) and Nikos Lavranos (Global Investment AG) provided a more positive account of ISDS from the perspective of investors and law firms. Dr von Mühlendahl also argued that with TTIP, Europe sits for the first time at the receiving end of ISDS from which developing countries complained for decades.
Other speakers and the audience were not entirely convinced with the positive portrayal of ISDS; and as a result, the panel was followed with a vibrant q&a session.
The day was closed with a short panel summarising the key findings of the day composing of David Whyte, Michelle Farrell and Firat Cengiz (all University of Liverpool). Prof Whyte identified ‘power’ as the key underlying concept emerging from the discussions of the day. Dr Farrell voiced her scepticism towards using rights as the main means in the fight against TTIP and other similar phenomena. Dr Cengiz argued that the technical discourse of international trade is used at times intentionally to conceal political choices behind the trade agenda.
The discussion continued informally over well-deserved drinks at the end of the day. Both speakers and participants were extremely pleased about how much was covered in one day. Several participants mentioned that they have learned a lot during the day and that they did not previously know how many different aspects there were to TTIP. However, both speakers and participants also acknowledged that many other fundamental aspects of TTIP and international trade in general, such as their effects on environment and animal rights, were left unaddressed at the end of day. As a result, participants left the event with more questions and issues to research – in other words, as per usual, the work shall continue!
We are grateful to the Marie Curie Actions and the Liverpool School Law of Social Justice’s Research Development Fund for their joint funding of this extremely fruitful conference. We are grateful to David Walters for documenting the day with his excellent photography. University of Liverpool staff and in particular Rachel Barrett did an excellent job in taking care of logistics and organisation.
Last but not the least, we are grateful to participants and in particular citizens of Liverpool for sacrificing an entire Friday to participate in the conference and for their active and invaluable contributions to an extremely vibrant discussion.