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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.