A secretive trade deal between the US and the EU. Photo: Flickr/Flazingo Photos
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TTIP: the biggest threat to democracy you've never heard of

A trade agreement between the EU and the US currently under secret negotiation will have a profound impact upon our democracy, but it’s been overshadowed by more typical eurosceptic coverage in the media.

Last weekend, The Daily Mail published a guide to vacuum cleaners being removed from the shelves as a result of new EU regulations. Yesterday the Daily Express said that now the EU is coming for our kettles. These are typical eurosceptic tabloid stories that have had many people fired up; they’ve turned relatively niche issues into a mainstream panics. So why then has the wide-reaching impact of TTIP been relegated to niche issue status?

TTIP, the acronym for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, is an agreement between the US and the EU currently in the negotiation stages. It is being negotiated in what are highly secretive circumstances; the majority of what we know comes from leaks. What we do know though is that the treaty will have significant repercussions for our democracy. The treaty, if passed, will provide powers to corporations that raise serious questions about where the power lies in the world today.

No doubt many of those reading this will have at some point heard someone give a stereotypically vague and lefty rant about "the corporations" in a pub or on the street with a placard. It seems though that if TTIP goes through, this concern will no longer be the preserve of the few but of the many. TTIP will provide transnational corporations with the power to sue governments for lost future profit as a result of government actions; the case would then be taken to a secret arbitration panel, which makes its decisions based upon the ominously phrased, ‘free market values’.

An American union has, for example, warned that under this agreement a corporation could sue a government for raising the minimum wage. In another example that is perhaps specifically worryingly for Ed Miliband, a similar trade treaty meant that when Argentina froze water and energy prices in the recession, the government was consequently sued by international utilities corporations for the profit they had lost out on. Through removing the regulatory differences between the different markets in order to pursue profit, TTIP is essentially legally ensuring that corporations outrank governments.

Given this grave threat to British democracy, why is TTIP so starkly absent from our media? Behind the multiple stories of bananas, hoovers and kettles lies the fear that the UK is no longer being ruled by its own government; that is the crux of what fuels many people’s euroscepticism. TTIP, which represents a fundamental shifting of power, not from one government to another, but away from government entirely, is absolutely a threat to sovereignty and yet it has so far been largely ignored.

To be fair, it’s a pretty complex issue and frankly it’s harder to get people fired up about trade agreements, which appear abstract and removed, than it is about their kitchen appliances. Perhaps in this regard it is a similar political issue to climate change: both are highly complicated, often technical and do not sit comfortably within one area of policy or interest, but rather affect multiple areas. That being said, it is not as though these reforms will not produce the kind of stories that gain traction in the media; if the movements of the European Court of Human Rights can make headlines for overruling the UK, then surely a multinational corporation suing a government can? And if that doesn’t work, what about the fact that the NHS is not excluded from TTIP, leading many to fear  imposed privatisation and systemic changes.

It’s not even as though large corporations are all that popular in the press anyway. Just look at G4S, the security company that appears "too big to fail" despite a history of rank incompetence. Remember the anger after G4S failed to fulfil its security obligations for the 2012 Olympics? Just imagine how angry it would make people to learn that G4S would essentially outrank the government as a result of TTIP. This isn’t an issue just for the left, or even for those who believe that the government should be bigger than corporations; for a government to be able to govern, it must be able to set policy without fear of financial repercussions.

Who do you want governing you? A democratically elected government or an unaccountable multinational corporation? It makes the old maxim that money is power into a brutal reality.

One major justification for TTIP is that it will generate around an extra 1 per cent in GDP growth. The question that has to be asked is whether this 1 per cent is worth the damage to our democracy? I would say it's clearly not. This is the greatest threat to democracy that we don’t know about, and that’s more important than how powerful your vacuum cleaner is.

Dan Holden is deputy editor of Shifting Grounds

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Boris Johnson is right about Saudi Arabia - but will he stick to his tune in Riyadh?

The Foreign Secretary went off script, but on truth. 

The difference a day makes. On Wednesday Theresa May was happily rubbing shoulders with Saudi Royalty at the Gulf Co-operation Council summit and talking about how important she thinks the relationship is.

Then on Thursday, the Guardian rained on her parade by publishing a transcript of her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, describing the regime as a "puppeteer" for "proxy wars" while speaking at an international conference last week.

We will likely never know how she reacted when she first heard the news, but she’s unlikely to have been happy. It was definitely off-script for a UK foreign secretary. Until Johnson’s accidental outburst, the UK-Saudi relationship had been one characterised by mutual backslapping, glamorous photo-ops, major arms contracts and an unlimited well of political support.

Needless to say, the Prime Minister put him in his place as soon as possible. Within a few hours it was made clear that his words “are not the government’s views on Saudi and its role in the region". In an unequivocal statement, Downing Street stressed that Saudi is “a vital partner for the UK” and reaffirmed its support for the Saudi-led air strikes taking place in Yemen.

For over 18 months now, UK fighter jets and UK bombs have been central to the Saudi-led destruction of the poorest country in the region. Schools, hospitals and homes have been destroyed in a bombing campaign that has created a humanitarian catastrophe.

Despite the mounting death toll, the arms exports have continued unabated. Whitehall has licensed over £3.3bn worth of weapons since the intervention began last March. As I write this, the UK government is actively working with BAE Systems to secure the sale of a new generation of the same fighter jets that are being used in the bombing.

There’s nothing new about UK leaders getting close to Saudi Arabia. For decades now, governments of all political colours have worked hand-in-glove with the arms companies and Saudi authorities. Our leaders have continued to bend over backwards to support them, while turning a blind eye to the terrible human rights abuses being carried out every single day.

Over recent years we have seen Tony Blair intervening to stop an investigation into arms exports to Saudi and David Cameron flying out to Riyadh to meet with royalty. Last year saw the shocking but ultimately unsurprising revelation that UK civil servants had lobbied for Saudi Arabia to sit on the UN Human Rights Council, a move which would seem comically ironic if the consequences weren’t so serious.

The impact of the relationship hasn’t just been to boost and legitimise the Saudi dictatorship - it has also debased UK policy in the region. The end result is a hypocritical situation in which the government is rightly calling on Russian forces to stop bombing civilian areas in Aleppo, while at the same time arming and supporting Saudi Arabia while it unleashes devastation on Yemen.

It would be nice to think that Johnson’s unwitting intervention could be the start of a new stage in UK-Saudi relations; one in which the UK stops supporting dictatorships and calls them out on their appalling human rights records. Unfortunately it’s highly unlikely. Last Sunday, mere days after his now notorious speech, Johnson appeared on the Andrew Marr show and, as usual, stressed his support for his Saudi allies.

The question for Johnson is which of these seemingly diametrically opposed views does he really hold? Does he believe Saudi Arabia is a puppeteer that fights proxy wars and distorts Islam, or does he see it as one of the UK’s closest allies?

By coincidence Johnson is due to visit Riyadh this weekend. Will he be the first Foreign Secretary in decades to hold the Saudi regime accountable for its abuses, or will he cozy up to his hosts and say it was all one big misunderstanding?

If he is serious about peace and about the UK holding a positive influence on the world stage then he must stand by his words and use his power to stop the arms sales and hold the UK’s "puppeteer" ally to the same standard as other aggressors. Unfortunately, if history is anything to go by, then we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Andrew Smith is a spokesman for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.