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 leads on political research at ComRes. He tweets @DanSHolden.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear