Anti-TTIP protesters take to the streets. Photo: Getty Images
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People's concerns over TTIP must be heard

Public anxiety over the Trans-Atlantic Trade Partnership (TTIP) must be listened to, and addressed. 

An important vote was passed in the trade committee (INTA) of the European Parliament today, which will impact upon the future of a trade deal currently under negotiation between the European Union and the United States. If passed, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP, will be the biggest agreement of its kind, shaping the rules governing a quarter of all global trade. It is also the issue about which I have received an unprecedented number of emails from constituents and campaign groups. Emails expressing concern that TTIP will lead to reduced transparency and accountability, pressures on wages and social dumping, a weakening of health and safety standards and a hampering of our efforts to tackle climate change.

I want to ensure that we get the best deal for European citizens. A positive outcome on TTIP could present a unique opportunity to regulate globalisation and to promote the high standards on which the European Union (EU) prides itself. This can only be achieved if the people it will affect are given the chance to have their say.

As Member of the European Parliament (MEP), member of the European trade committee and the European Labour Party's spokesperson on TTIP, it is my duty to ensure that these voices are heard in Brussels and Strasbourg, and since being elected in May last year I have made this a priority. I have met with hundreds of campaigners, attended dozens of events and written at length on the state of play in the Parliament. I have listened to the public's concerns and tried to explain in the clearest terms possible the complicated process of negotiations, so that UK citizens know what is and isn't at stake.

It is important to note that it's the European Commission, not the European Parliament, which leads negotiations on trade deals in the EU. In fact, MEPs have no role in the negotiating process at all. What we do have is the power to veto any trade deal that does not satisfy our demands or the demands of our constituents. This is a blunt tool - MEPs can only say yes or no - however the threat of a negative vote means that we can have an influence on negotiations, however indirect. Knowing that MEPs will have the final say, it would be very unwise for the Commission not to take into account the Parliament's position on TTIP.

As such, the Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament, together with other progressive political groups, have wasted no time in making clear what we are willing to accept in a final trade deal, and what we would reject. We have consistently pushed for the current European Parliament to formally adopt a position on TTIP, to set out in advance our conditions for supporting any deal with the US.

But in order to get this resolution, we need the numbers. Since we don't command a majority on our own, or even together with the greens and the radical left, this means agreeing common demands with the conservatives and / or liberals.

In this context, this week was a brilliant first step forward. A resolution adopted in the trade committee set out our position on a wide array of issues. It is, however, just a first step: the texts adopted in committee (by 41 MEPs) will then be voted by the plenary of the European Parliament, which will confirm the position on TTIP of all 751 MEPs. This crucial second vote will take place on 10th June 2015.

One such position contained in this resolution calls for an assurance that all public services - including the NHS, water, social services, social security and education - are exempt from the scope of an EU-US trade deal. Importantly, we have also demanded that national and local authorities retain the full right re-nationalise any public services currently under private control. In the context of the rapid privatisation of the NHS currently being overseen by the Conservatives, the inclusion of this clause will be highly significant for any future UK government wishing to reverse such a trend.

Anyone that has heard David Cameron call our concerns for the NHS "nonsense" last November will appreciate the significance of this victory.

This resolution is largely based on recommendations we've received from public services users, providers and employees. It was already the position of the Labour Party and European Socialists. It is now the position of the trade committee, and hopefully it will become the position of the whole European Parliament on 10 June.

We have also managed to secure strong provisions to defend binding labour safeguards in a future agreement, so as to prevent social dumping. The outcome on standards is significant, too. The text we agreed on the infamous "regulatory cooperation", which some multinationals and Tory MEPs view as a way to bypass Parliament in order to slash our standards, is a clear rejection of undemocratic power-grabbing of any kind. 

Finally, the outcome reached in the trade committee on private tribunals - known as Investor State Dispute Settlement or ISDS - is an important victory, even if it is not ideal. I had tabled an unambiguous amendment against ISDS, for which I had gathered the support of 66 Socialist MEPs.

My position on ISDS is clear. While we may include investment protection rules in trade deals, I do not believe that these rules should be enforced through special private tribunals in which multinationals can secretly sue governments for implementing policies that threaten their current and future profit margins. I have defended the use of national courts in TTIP, and I'm sympathetic to the idea of creating an international tribunal in the medium- or long-run so that all countries have access to the same system. However any outcome that threatens elected policymakers from implementing laws as they see fit is nothing short of unacceptable, and I will vote against any such measure.

The position adopted this week is a compromise on my amendment, though it nonetheless favours the use of public courts instead of any investor-state dispute settlement mechanism. To me this means no ISDS in TTIP.

This is not the end of our fight. On 10 June, the text we adopted this week in committee will be put to the vote in a plenary session of the European Parliament. This will give us the opportunity to table amendments again, and I will continue to press for a strong position from the Parliament that includes an explicit rejection of ISDS. Labour MEPs will of course support such a move, but in order to win this vote we will need the support of Tory, UKIP and Lib-Dem Members, too. This week's vote is proof that when the people make enough noise, MEPs with the power to influence positive change listen. Another big push to convince those politicians not already on side - via social media, via letters and emails and via collective public action - could make all the difference. As we approach this important next hurdle, I urge you to all to make your voices heard loud and clear.

 

Jude Kirton-Darling is Labour MEP for the North East of England

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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation