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

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.