The emails have been pouring in for weeks: thousands of them, tens of thousands. The British Left – or a goodly chunk of it, at any rate – doesn’t like the proposed EU-US trade deal, known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, TTIP. It will, say my worried constituents, force governments to contract out public services. It will elevate multi-national corporations over elected parliaments. It will create an international lobbyfest, letting vested interests conspire against the public weal. It will – this is the one that really irks people – allow the democratic decisions of the people’s tribunes to be struck down by supranational courts under something known as Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS).
You know something? The Lefties have got a point. Or half a point, anyway. I don’t mean about the merits of free trade. As far as I’m concerned, the spread of global markets is directly responsible for the unprecedented growth of the past half-century. Everyone has benefited, agrarian economies as well as industrialised ones: capitalism has cut extreme poverty by two thirds since 1990.
But TTIP isn’t just a free trade deal. Sure, it will have elements that extend consumer choice: more mutual product recognition, for example. But multinationals may also use the process to raise barriers to entry and disadvantage their smaller competitors. There is, as I never cease to argue on this site, a difference between being pro-business and being pro-market.
TTIP will certainly be pro-business, at least if by business we mean the mega-corporations. Whether or not it ends up being pro-market remains to be seen. And whether I vote for it depends on what the final text contains. I have no problem with the principle of binding external arbitration: ISDS mechanisms have been a standard part of trade deals since the 1960s. I shall, though, be voting for an amendment that would allow individual EU states to opt out of ISDS or, indeed, out of the whole deal.
But here’s the thing. All the aspects of TTIP that annoy my radical constituents are intrinsic properties of the EU. The privatisation of public services doesn’t really form any part of TTIP; but there are extensive existing EU rules on public procurement. Mega-corporations already have Eurocrats eating out of their hands: there are almost as many lobbyists accredited to EU institutions as there are in Washington DC. Secret backroom deals? Welcome to Brussels.
As for the aspect that most riles opponents, namely the ability of companies to sue national governments for implementing their manifesto promises, what do you think is the whole basis of the EU? It’s precisely such legal supremacy that distinguishes the Treaty of Rome from other international accords. Instead of binding its signatories as states, the Treaty of Rome created a new legal order, with primacy over national constitutions, allowing firms (and individuals) to sidestep national legislation.
Many anti-TTIP protesters have followed through their logic, and are also anti-EU. But not all have made the link. Some Labour MPs, in particular, seem to reason that anything that Margaret Thatcher disliked and that Nigel Farage detests must be a good thing. It’s not that they have dismissed the democratic case against the EU; it’s that they haven’t considered it.
That may change their minds, of course. Plenty of younger Leftists ask why Britain should be obliged to give more funds to rich French farmers than to poor African farmers. They wonder how progressives ended up on the same side as the Commissioners who descend from private jets to tell Greek and Spanish public sector workers that they need a bit more austerity. They look at the ecological calamity of the Common Fisheries Policy which, having destroyed what ought to have been a renewable resource in the North Sea, is now plundering more distant waters through one-sided deals with African states. They recoil in shock from the Brussels gravy train.
For they perceive that, under all the touchy-feely talk, the EU is a corporatist racket. Businesses and NGOs have influence in Brussels that they could never get in national capitals, where there is greater proximity between voters and decision-makers. The EU, which deliberately vests supreme power in the hands of unelected officials, was designed by and for Davos Man. Why do so many Left-of-Centre voters go along with it? Perhaps they haven’t looked closely.