A trade deal that allows corporations to sue governments is not about "recovery"

The proposed US-EU partnership is likely to strip away rules that protect health and the environment.

An antidote to austerity has finally been discovered. It involves breaking down the "barriers" between two of the world's economic powerhouses: Europe and the United States.

That is the spin being put on a planned trans-Atlantic "trade and investment partnership" (TTIP, for short). Supporters of the proposed deal contend it will help usher in a recovery.

Months before talks between the EU and US got underway in July, the European commissioner for trade Karel de Gucht said they would lead to "the cheapest stimulus package you can imagine". The delightfully-named Myron Brilliant from the US Chamber of Commerce dreams of a "more robust" commercial relationship because neither side will "emerge from the financial crisis through austerity alone". BusinessEurope, an alliance of employers' groups, believes TTIP will provide a "fantastic opportunity" to "generate the jobs and growth we need to turn our economies around" [PDF].

Funnily, nobody has a clear idea of just how beneficial the "partnership" will be. The Washington Post recently carried a blog post forecasting that it would boost EU-US trade by $180 billion each year. Yet that figure did not appear in the source cited by The Post - a 2010 study [PDF] partly financed by the aforementioned US Chamber of Commerce.

Hyping up TTIP as a rescue remedy is, no doubt, a deliberate ploy to divert attention from its real objective of binning regulations that are essential for protecting health and the environment.

The goal of a trans-Atlantic trade pact was first mooted by Leon Brittan, then the EU's trade commissioner, in 1995. Though the goal hasn't captured the public imagination for the past 18 years, representatives of some of the world's top companies have been working quietly towards realising it.

The Transatlantic Business Council (TABC), for example, brings together British American Tobacco, IBM, BP, Pfizer, Deutsche Bank and Nasdaq.  Under the "partnership", it wants new laws to undergo mandatory assessments of their likely impact on trans-Atlantic trade [PDF]. At first glance, this may appear technical and innocuous. Yet the idea of mandatory impact assessment was pioneered by cigarette-makers during the 1990s in a bid to stave off anti-smoking measures.

Big Tobacco's fingerprints smudge quite a few of the initiatives that paved the way for the trans-Atlantic talks. From 2007 until 2012, the Brussels office of the Trans Atlantic Business Dialogue (as the TABC was then known) was headed by Jeffries Briginshaw, who had previously spent 14 years with British American Tobacco. Briginshaw is now the managing director of BritishAmerican Business, a London-based outfit that has threatened to stage a "road show" [PDF] promoting the trade deal to the public.

It is not hard to see the attraction of the planned deal for the cigarette industry. The European Commission is committed to having a clause in it that will allow corporations to sue governments over laws that constitute a "barrier" to their activities in a specialised court. The history of arbitration panels resulting from trade liberalisation agreements is that they are headed by pro-corporate lawyers, not impartial judges. Last year, the World Trade Organisation ruled that the US would have to lift its ban on clove-flavoured cigarettes,  which have been designed to entice teenagers. Shielding the young from sweetened carcinogens is not permissible, according to the zealots of the "free market".

Culture is the only significant topic that has been removed from the scope of the negotiations so far. France has rightly been adamant that it be allowed maintain quotas to prevent its film-makers being buried under an avalanche of Hollywood dross. 

Otherwise, the European negotiators seem to be eager that this continent be transformed into a carbon copy of America. Brussels officials have committed themselves to revisiting - code for "weakening" - their food safety standards [PDF]. This will, no doubt, cheer up Monsanto, which has become increasingly frustrated with hippy parents like me, who would prefer not to feed genetically modified vegetables to our kids.

In some respects, the EU side may be even more eager to please corporate interests than the Americans. Michel Barnier, Europe's commissioner for the single market, has insisted that financial services should be up for discussion, despite signals that the US wants them excluded.

Rules on banks have been relaxed in the not so distant past. And we know what the consequences were: a global crisis. We are still living with the effects of that crisis, so why does the EU elite want history to repeat itself?

Far from prescribing an antidote to austerity, a trade deal could perpetuate the shock therapy now being administered.

David Cronin's book "Corporate Europe: How Big Business Sets Policies on Food, Climate and War" will be published by Pluto in August

Follow him on Twitter @dvcronin

Tobacco manufacturers and other corporations have been pushing for a trans-Atlantic trade pact. (Photo: Getty.)
Photo: Getty
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Ignored by the media, the Liberal Democrats are experiencing a revival

The crushed Liberals are doing particularly well in areas that voted Conservative in 2015 - and Remain in 2016. 

The Liberal Democrats had another good night last night, making big gains in by-elections. They won Adeyfield West, a seat they have never held in Dacorum, with a massive swing. They were up by close to the 20 points in the Derby seat of Allestree, beating Labour into second place. And they won a seat in the Cotswolds, which borders the vacant seat of Witney.

It’s worth noting that they also went backwards in a safe Labour ward in Blackpool and a safe Conservative seat in Northamptonshire.  But the overall pattern is clear, and it’s not merely confined to last night: the Liberal Democrats are enjoying a mini-revival, particularly in the south-east.

Of course, it doesn’t appear to be making itself felt in the Liberal Democrats’ poll share. “After Corbyn's election,” my colleague George tweeted recently, “Some predicted Lib Dems would rise like Lazarus. But poll ratings still stuck at 8 per cent.” Prior to the local elections, I was pessimistic that the so-called Liberal Democrat fightback could make itself felt at a national contest, when the party would have to fight on multiple fronts.

But the local elections – the first time since 1968 when every part of the mainland United Kingdom has had a vote on outside of a general election – proved that completely wrong. They  picked up 30 seats across England, though they had something of a nightmare in Stockport, and were reduced to just one seat in the Welsh Assembly. Their woes continued in Scotland, however, where they slipped to fifth place. They were even back to the third place had those votes been replicated on a national scale.

Polling has always been somewhat unkind to the Liberal Democrats outside of election campaigns, as the party has a low profile, particularly now it has just eight MPs. What appears to be happening at local by-elections and my expectation may be repeated at a general election is that when voters are presented with the option of a Liberal Democrat at the ballot box they find the idea surprisingly appealing.

Added to that, the Liberal Democrats’ happiest hunting grounds are clearly affluent, Conservative-leaning areas that voted for Remain in the referendum. All of which makes their hopes of a good second place in Witney – and a good night in the 2017 county councils – look rather less farfetched than you might expect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.