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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Why the Psychoactive Substances Act is much better than anyone will admit

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess for their own consumption recreational drugs too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

From Thursday, it may be illegal for churches to use incense. They should be safe from prosecution though, because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren’t the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force this week.

Incense-wafters aren’t the only ones wondering whether they will be criminalised by the Act. Its loose definition of psychoactive substances has been ridiculed for apparently banning, among other things, flowers, perfume and vaping.

Anyone writing about drugs can save time by creating a shortcut to insert the words “the government has ignored its advisors” and this Act was no exception. The advisory council repeatedly warned the government that its definition would both ban things that it didn’t mean to prohibit and could, at the same time, be unenforcable. You can guess how much difference these interventions made.

But, bad though the definition is – not a small problem when the entire law rests on it – the Act is actually much better than is usually admitted.

Under the law, it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess, for their own consumption, recreational drugs that are considered too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

That sounds like a mess, and it is. But it’s a mess that many reformers have long advocated for other drugs. Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 while keeping supply illegal, and its approach is well-regarded by reformers, including the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to adopt this model in their last manifesto.

This fudge is the best option out of what was politically possible for dealing with what, until this week, were called legal highs.

Before the Act, high-street shops were free to display new drugs in their windows. With 335 head shops in the UK, the drugs were visible in everyday places – giving the impression that they couldn’t be that dangerous. As far as the data can be trusted, it’s likely that dozens of people are now dying each year after taking the drugs.

Since legal highs were being openly sold and people were thought to be dying from them, it was obvious that the government would have to act. Until it did, every death would be blamed on its inaction, even if the death rate for users of some newly banned drugs may be lower than it is for those who take part in still-legal activities like football. The only question was what the government would do.

The most exciting option would have been for it to incentivise manufacturers to come up with mind-altering drugs that are safe to take. New Zealand is allowing drug makers to run trials of psychoactive drugs, which could eventually – if proved safe enough – be sold legally. One day, this might change the world of drug-taking, but this kind of excitement was never going to appeal to Theresa May’s Home Office.

What was far more plausible was that the government would decide to treat new drugs like old ones. Just as anyone caught with cocaine or ecstasy faces a criminal record, so users of new drugs could have been hit with the same. This was how legal highs have been treated up until now when one was considered serious enough to require a ban.

But instead, the government has recognised that its aim – getting new drugs out of high-street shop windows so they don’t seem so normal – didn’t depend on criminalising users. A similar law in Ireland achieved precisely this. To its credit, the government realised it would be disproportionate to make it a criminal offence to possess the now-illegal highs.

The reality of the law will look chaotic. Users will still be able to buy new drugs online – which could open them to prosecution for import – and the law will do nothing to make drugs any safer. Some users might now be exposed to dealers who also want to sell them more dangerous other drugs. There will be few prosecutions and some head shop owners might try to pick holes in the law: the government seems to have recognised that it needed a better definition to have any chance of making the law stick.

But, most importantly for those of us who think the UK’s drug laws should be better at reducing the damage drugs cause, the government, for the first time, has decided that a class of recreational drugs are too dangerous to be sold but that it shouldn’t be a crime to possess them. The pressure on the government to act on legal highs has been relieved, without ordinary users being criminalised. For all the problems with the new law, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leo Barasi is a former Head of Communications at the UK Drug Policy Commission. He writes in a personal capacity