Labour must get involved in the TTIP negotiations. Photo: Getty
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We need an approach you can trust on TTIP

The Prime Minister shows contempt for people's concerns about this trade deal.

When David Cameron, together with the other prime ministers of the European Union, gave the green light to the European Commission to start negotiating a trade deal with the US, he would have been well-advised to keep a much closer brief on what was being discussed.

Now, nearly 18 months into the largest grassroots campaign on a trade deal since the World Trade Organisation (WTO) was set up 20 years ago, the Prime Minister has been caught short, and his true contempt for people’s concerns is once more coming to shore.  When referring to widespread fears about safety, fairness and democracy as “nonsense” while asking for the unreserved trust of the very people he has spurned, David Cameron is only demonstrating that the public is better informed than he is on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).  These warnings he should heed.

Legitimate concerns and distrust in our national and European institutions can also lead to misinformation and exaggeration. In truth, any positive or negative claims about what is or is not in TTIP should be taken with a pinch of salt as no common text has yet been agreed on any of the chapters of TTIP.  That, in itself, is one of the major problems.

To make sense of the TTIP debate, it is therefore crucial to understand the distinction between the various arguments being used. Arguments based on the content of the negotiating mandate can state with certainty what the European Commission is allowed to accept, what it cannot compromise over and what it is expected to achieve. Arguments based on the content of recently concluded trade deals, such as the agreement with Canada (CETA), give an indication on what the Commission is aiming for, and what the government has been doing in similar situations in the past. Claims based on anything else mostly reflect fears and hopes, and fears and hopes only. But it’s these fears and hopes that could easily derail TTIP.

As the Labour Party’s spokespersons on TTIP in the European Parliament and Westminster, we have heard the concerns voiced by thousands across the UK, and we will listen to thousands more in the weeks and months to come. We have also heard the positive expectations that this trade deal triggers. Faced with a choice between Cassandra and Pollyanna, we choose to stick to the only sensible approach we know: honesty and hard work.

To be honest is to recognise the legitimate concerns that TTIP could seriously hamper our ability to restore fairness in Britain. Insufficient exemptions for the NHS, and other public services could lead to serious legal challenges to any future re-nationalisation. There are concerns that TTIP could also challenge transparency and accountability, as any Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS), even a reformed one, could create the perception of transferring power away from the people. There are also concerns that our safety could also be at risk. We will be campaigning hard to ensure that proper provisions on labour and environmental standards are included to prevent social dumping, pressures on wages and hampering our efforts to tackle climate change.

But honesty also implies to acknowledge that a deal which properly addresses every single one of our concerns would have to be welcomed. The economic impact of TTIP is widely debated, and it is important to bear in mind that it will entirely depend on its final scope. However, we do know from recent history that balanced trade deals do have a positive impact on economic activity and job creations. Regardless how large this impact might be, if we find that the final deal will help rather than hinder then it would be irresponsible to reject it. We are nonetheless aware that the impact of trade largely depends on the pre-existing levels of unemployment, and this is why we insist that TTIP will need to promote labour rights in the US, as the alternative is that it would harm workers in the EU.

Ultimately, TTIP represents a rare opportunity to regulate globalisation. This opportunity should not be discarded lightly. In a rapidly changing global economy, we are increasingly trading with partners such as China that do not recognise our rights and standards. This unregulated trade already challenges our social and environmental model. A balanced TTIP, one that promotes rather than weaken standards, regulating a quarter of all global trade, could mark a departure from this race to the bottom.

So rather than disengaging by already accepting or rejecting the deal unreservedly before it is even drafted, we have chosen to act in Brussels and in the UK to try to address all of these concerns.  Just as Clement Attlee’s post-war government led the left in regulating global trade by signing Britain up to the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs – the forerunner of the WTO.  It’s in that spirit that we have set out our parameters and told the European Commission and the Coalition Government that we would not support the deal if our terms are not met. And we are working hard to build a consensus within the European Parliament and in the House of Commons on these parameters, so that when it comes to a vote the majority will be on the right side of the argument: the side of the people.

We are not prepared to accept any deal that is unfair to the British people. This underpins our arguments.  Crucially this means that public services, including the NHS, must be fully exempted from TTIP. The European Commission mandate prevents it from including  services that are still publicly funded. But it leaves the possibility to include services that have been privatised in recent years.,. TTIP must guarantee our full ability to provide any service publicly if the British people choose to do so. The coalition government claim that the NHS is safe but refuse to specifically exclude it in the draft text. That can only lead you to the conclusion that the biggest threat to our NHS is not TTIP but the Tory-led government.

We are not prepared to accept any deal that does not satisfy our concerns on safety. Upholding high food safety standards and the precautionary principle has been a constant stance of the European Union over the last 20 years, and we do not expect it to change with TTIP. The Commission mandate is very clear in this regard. We are however hugely concerned with the increasingly weak outcomes reached by the Commission in recent trade deals when it comes to protecting workers abroad. In order to be acceptable, TTIP will need to contain strong commitments from the US to establish a level playing field with the EU in terms of labour rights with the EU rights being the baseline on which to build. It goes without saying that any weakening of our own standards would be plainly counterproductive.

We must argue for a deal that puts transparency and accountability at its heart. Private arbitration mechanisms offering the possibility to investors to claim for compensation from the State in case of unfair treatments can be justified in trade deals amongst partners with uneven level of investment protection, and where due process of law cannot be guaranteed. It is not the case as far as both the US and EU are concerned, and we will argue strongly against any mechanism that would create a parallel justice for multinationals, subject to opacity, conflict of interests and able to make undemocratic rulings. Ultimately, TTIP must not challenge our ability to adopt and implement laws and regulations as we see fit and are elected to enact. 

There are ways that the agreement could deliver more for businesses in the UK and help create more jobs. A critical point is that the US States aren’t covered by the agreement and therefore their large procurement budgets wouldn’t be opened up for EU business including Britain. Opening up these procurement markets. This could be deliver big opportunities for our businesses.

We must get fully involved in the TTIP negotiations if we want to avoid our worse fears materialising, and push for a progressive regulation of global trade. The stakes are too high for Labour to afford any complacency, whether stemming from over-confidence that the deal will be positive no matter what or a complete lack of confidence that we cannot influence the negotiations. You can trust us to remain concerned, sensible and engaged about TTIP to ensure it provides the stated benefits and filters down to benefit both small businesses and consumers.

Jude Kirton-Darling MEP, European Parliamentary Labour party spokesperson on TTIP; Ian Murray MP, Labour party shadow trade and investment minister

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The 11 things we know after the Brexit plan debate

Labour may just have fallen into a trap. 

On Wednesday, both Labour and Tory MPs filed out of the Commons together to back a motion calling on the Prime Minister to commit to publish the government’s Brexit plan before Article 50 is triggered in March 2017. 

The motion was proposed by Labour, but the government agreed to back it after inserting its own amendment calling on MPs to “respect the wishes of the United Kingdom” and adhere to the original timetable. 

With questions on everything from the customs union to the Northern Irish border, it is clear that the Brexit minister David Davis will have a busy Christmas. Meanwhile, his declared intention to stay schtum about the meat of Brexit negotiations for now means the nation has been hanging off every titbit of news, including a snapped memo reading “have cake and eat it”. 

So, with confusion abounding, here is what we know from the Brexit plan debate: 

1. The government will set out a Brexit plan before triggering Article 50

The Brexit minister David Davis said that Parliament will get to hear the government’s “strategic plans” ahead of triggering Article 50, but that this will not include anything that will “jeopardise our negotiating position”. 

While this is something of a victory for the Remain MPs and the Opposition, the devil is in the detail. For example, this could still mean anything from a white paper to a brief description released days before the March deadline.

2. Parliament will get a say on converting EU law into UK law

Davis repeated that the Great Repeal Bill, which scraps the European Communities Act 1972, will be presented to the Commons during the two-year period following Article 50.

He said: “After that there will be a series of consequential legislative measures, some primary, some secondary, and on every measure the House will have a vote and say.”

In other words, MPs will get to debate how existing EU law is converted to UK law. But, crucially, that isn’t the same as getting to debate the trade negotiations. And the crucial trade-off between access to the single market versus freedom of movement is likely to be decided there. 

3. Parliament is almost sure to get a final vote on the Brexit deal

The European Parliament is expected to vote on the final Brexit deal, which means the government accepts it also needs parliamentary approval. Davis said: “It is inconceivable to me that if the European Parliament has a vote, this House does not.”

Davis also pledged to keep MPs as well-informed as MEPs will be.

However, as shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer pointed out to The New Statesman, this could still leave MPs facing the choice of passing a Brexit deal they disagree with or plunging into a post-EU abyss. 

4. The government still plans to trigger Article 50 in March

With German and French elections planned for 2017, Labour MP Geraint Davies asked if there was any point triggering Article 50 before the autumn. 

But Davis said there were 15 elections scheduled during the negotiation process, so such kind of delay was “simply not possible”. 

5. Themed debates are a clue to Brexit priorities

One way to get a measure of the government’s priorities is the themed debates it is holding on various areas covered by EU law, including two already held on workers’ rights and transport.  

Davis mentioned themed debates as a key way his department would be held to account. 

It's not exactly disclosure, but it is one step better than relying on a camera man papping advisers as they walk into No.10 with their notes on show. 

6. The immigration policy is likely to focus on unskilled migrants

At the Tory party conference, Theresa May hinted at a draconian immigration policy that had little time for “citizens of the world”, while Davis said the “clear message” from the Brexit vote was “control immigration”.

He struck a softer tone in the debate, saying: “Free movement of people cannot continue as it is now, but this will not mean pulling up the drawbridge.”

The government would try to win “the global battle for talent”, he added. If the government intends to stick to its migration target and, as this suggests, will keep the criteria for skilled immigrants flexible, the main target for a clampdown is clearly unskilled labour.  

7. The government is still trying to stay in the customs union

Pressed about the customs union by Anna Soubry, the outspoken Tory backbencher, Davis said the government is looking at “several options”. This includes Norway, which is in the single market but not the customs union, and Switzerland, which is in neither but has a customs agreement. 

(For what it's worth, the EU describes this as "a series of bilateral agreements where Switzerland has agreed to take on certain aspects of EU legislation in exchange for accessing the EU's single market". It also notes that Swiss exports to the EU are focused on a few sectors, like chemicals, machinery and, yes, watches.)

8. The government wants the status quo on security

Davis said that on security and law enforcement “our aim is to preserve the current relationship as best we can”. 

He said there is a “clear mutual interest in continued co-operation” and signalled a willingness for the UK to pitch in to ensure Europe is secure across borders. 

One of the big tests for this commitment will be if the government opts into Europol legislation which comes into force next year.

9. The Chancellor is wooing industries

Robin Walker, the under-secretary for Brexit, said Philip Hammond and Brexit ministers were meeting organisations in the City, and had also met representatives from the aerospace, energy, farming, chemicals, car manufacturing and tourism industries. 

However, Labour has already attacked the government for playing favourites with its secretive Nissan deal. Brexit ministers have a fine line to walk between diplomacy and what looks like a bribe. 

10. Devolved administrations are causing trouble

A meeting with leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ended badly, with the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon publicly declaring it “deeply frustrating”. The Scottish government has since ramped up its attempts to block Brexit in the courts. 

Walker took a more conciliatory tone, saying that the PM was “committed to full engagement with the devolved administrations” and said he undertook the task of “listening to the concerns” of their representatives. 

11. Remain MPs may have just voted for a trap

Those MPs backing Remain were divided on whether to back the debate with the government’s amendment, with the Green co-leader Caroline Lucas calling it “the Tories’ trap”.

She argued that it meant signing up to invoking Article 50 by March, and imposing a “tight timetable” and “arbitrary deadline”, all for a vaguely-worded Brexit plan. In the end, Lucas was one of the Remainers who voted against the motion, along with the SNP. 

George agrees – you can read his analysis of the Brexit trap here

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.