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Newsletter no 29 - In the spotlight 1

Tuesday 14 March 2017, by Manu

Who is pushing FTAs?

Free trade and investment agreements (FTAs) are deals between two or more governments outside the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Many political and economic elites in countries like the US, members of the European Union (EU), Japan and Australia have looked outside the WTO since they claim it doesn’t go far enough in setting global rules for the benefit of their corporations and their geopolitical objectives, while multilateral talks have moved slowly. Since the beginning of this century, these elites seek more powerful deals on a bilateral or regional basis with tough enforcement teeth. The idea is that by getting countries to commit to deeper and more comprehensive levels of corporate freedom through these agreements, a uniform global market that is “wide open” to transnational business and finance capital flows can be built from the bottom up.

It’s not surprising that these deals are drawn up in secret: parliaments have no role other than setting broad objectives while the public is denied access to actual negotiating texts. Corporate lobbyists are actively consulted throughout the process on the outcomes they want: indeed, transnational corporations and industry coalitions are major players in shaping these deals in the first place. For example, in the early phase of talks between the US and EU on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), agribusiness corporations like Cargill and Coca-Cola were the top interest group telling negotiators exactly what they wanted written into the deal. [1]

FTAs cover a very comprehensive range of issues – from intellectual property rights (IPR), telecommunications and energy to food safety – spelling out exactly what countries can and cannot do in a vast number of areas as they open their markets to foreign investors. As a result, the governments that sign on are forced to rewrite their laws, and make binding, enforceable commitments against going backwards. Through these deals, companies even get the right to scrutinise draft policies and regulations that they claim may affect them in the FTA partner country.

Right now, social movements are fighting powerful new FTAs such as:

- CETA between Canada and the European Union (The European Parliament has voted to approve the agreement on the 15th of February 2017);

- TTIP between the US and the EU;

- TPP between the US, Japan and 10 other countries (the US has pulled out but that does not necessarily mean the deal is dead);

- RCEP between ASEAN, China, India, Japan, Australia, Korea and New Zealand;

- TISA, on services alone, between the US, EU, Japan and 20 other countries;

- EPAs imposed by the EU in Africa;

- and bilateral deals being pushed by the EU with India, Vietnam, Mexico, Japan, Mercosur, Chile, etc.

In addition to political and regulatory power, all of these treaties would give corporations access to natural resources, labour and new markets.

While some of these deals seem to be on shaky ground now since new right-wing governments in countries like the UK and the US have promised to replace a host of old trade agreements with new ones, this does not necessarily mean that the old deals will simply disappear. They may change shape or membership or go more slowly. Moreover, it would be a mistake to believe the propaganda that new and “better” trade or investment agreements will save local jobs or create trickle down well-being for farmers, consumers, small companies or the environment. Nothing has changed in the agenda of seeking to prop up the super 1% of big business, including agribusiness, through these deals.

[1Corporate Europe Observatory, “TTIP: a corporate lobbying paradise”, 14 July 2015, https://corporateeurope.org/international-trade/2015/07/ttip-corporate-lobbying-paradise