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.)
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The 2017 Budget will force Philip Hammond to confront the Brexit effect

Rising prices and lost markets are hard to ignore. 

With the Brexit process, Donald Trump and parliamentary by-election aftermath dominating the headlines, you’d be forgiven for missing the speculation we’d normally expect ahead of a Budget next week. Philip Hammond’s demeanour suggests it will be a very low-key affair, living up to his billing as the government’s chief accounting officer. Yet we desperately need a thorough analysis of this government’s economic strategy – and some focused work from those whose job it is to supposedly keep track of government policy.

It seems to me there are four key dynamics the Budget must address:

1. British spending power

The spending power of British consumers is about to be squeezed further. Consumers have propped up the economy since 2015, but higher taxes, suppressed earnings and price inflation are all likely to weigh heavily on this driver for growth from now on. Relatively higher commodity prices and the sterling effect is starting to filter into the high street – which means that the pound in the pocket doesn’t go as far as it used to. The dwindling level of household savings is a casualty of this situation. Real incomes are softer, with poorer returns on assets, and households are substituting with loans and overdrafts. The switch away from consumer-driven growth feels well and truly underway. How will the Chancellor counteract to this?

2. Lagging productivity

Productivity remains a stubborn challenge that government policy is failing to address. Since the 2008 financial crisis, the UK’s productivity performance has lagged Germany, France and the USA, whose employees now produce in an average four days as much as British workers take to produce in five. Perhaps years of uncertainty have seen companies choose to sit on cash rather than invest in new production process technology. Perhaps the dominance of services in our economy, a sector notorious hard in which to drive new efficiencies, explains the productivity lag. But ministers have singularly failed to assess and prioritise investment in those aspects of public services which can boost productivity. These could include easing congestion and aiding commuters; boosting mobile connectivity; targeting high skills; blasting away administrative bureaucracy; helping workers back to work if they’re ill.

3. Lost markets

The Prime Minister’s decision to give up trying to salvage single market membership means we enter the "Great Unknown" trade era unsure how long (if any) our transition will be. We must also remain uncertain whether new Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) are going to go anyway to make up for those lost markets.

New FTAs may get rid of tariffs. But historically they’ve never been much good at knocking down the other barriers for services exports – which explains why the analysis by the National Institute for Economic and Social Research recently projected a 61 per cent fall in services trade with the EU. Brexit will radically transform the likely composition of economic growth in the medium term. It’s true that in the near term, sterling depreciation is likely to bring trade back into balance as exports enjoy an adrenal currency competitive stimulus. But over the medium term, "balance" is likely to come not from new export market volume, but from a withering away of consumer spending power to buy imported goods. Beyond that, the structural imbalance will probably set in again.

4. Empty public wallets

There is a looming disaster facing Britain’s public finances. It’s bad enough that the financial crisis is now pushing the level of public sector debt beyond 90 per cent of our gross domestic product (GDP).  But a quick glance at the Office for Budget Responsibility’s January Fiscal Sustainability Report is enough to make your jaw drop. The debt mountain is projected to grow for the next 50 years. All else being equal, we could end up with an incredible 234 per cent of debt/GDP by 2066 – chiefly because of the ageing population and rising healthcare costs. This isn’t a viable or serviceable level of debt and we shouldn’t take any comfort from the fact that many other economies (Japan, USA) are facing a similar fate. The interest payable on that debt mountain would severely crowd out resources for vital public services. So while some many dream of splashing public spending around on nationalising this or that, of a "universal basic income" or social security giveaways, the cold truth is that we are going to be forced to make more hard decisions on spending now, find new revenues if we want to maintain service standards, and prioritise growth-inducing policies wherever possible.

We do need to foster a new economic model that promotes social mobility, environmental and fiscal sustainability, with long-termism at its heart. But we should be wary of those on the fringes of politics pretending they have either a magic money tree, or a have-cake-and-eat-it trading model once we leap into the tariff-infested waters of WTO rules.

We shouldn’t have to smash up a common sense, balanced approach in order for our country to succeed. A credible, centre-left economic model should combine sound stewardship of taxpayer resources with a fairness agenda that ensures the wealthiest contribute most and the polluter pays. A realistic stimulus should be prioritised in productivity-oriented infrastructure investment. And Britain should reach out and gather new trading alliances in Europe and beyond as a matter of urgency.

In short, the March Budget ought to provide an economic strategy for the long-term. Instead it feels like it will be a staging-post Budget from a distracted Government, going through the motions with an accountancy exercise to get through the 12 months ahead.

Chris Leslie MP was Shadow Chancellor in 2015 and chairs Labour’s PLP Treasury Committee

 

 

 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour’s backbench Treasury Committee and was shadow Chancellor in 2015.