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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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage