Last Friday, 38 Degrees launched a name-and-shame campaign against me and three of my colleagues in the European Parliament. Photographs of David Campbell Bannerman (Conservative), Emma McClarkin (Conservative), David Martin (Labour) and I were posted beneath the caption ‘These UK politicians voted to support TTIP’, with an incitement to subscribers to share the infographic in order to ‘expose’ us.
All four of us sit on the Trade Committee of the European Parliament, which on 28 May adopted a resolution setting out our position with regards to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a huge trade deal currently being negotiated between the European Union (EU) and the United States.
38 Degrees’ campaign falls startlingly short of the mark at a number of levels. In the first instance, it is a fundamental misrepresentation of the processes involved in putting together a trade deal of this scale, and of the powers that Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have in the negotiation process.
We can’t ‘stop’ or ‘block’ TTIP: it’s already happening.
It is the European Commission, not the European Parliament, which leads negotiations on trade deals in the EU. In fact, MEPs do not have any official role in negotiations at all. Our one legislative power is the ability to veto any TTIP that does not satisfy our demands or the demands of our constituents.
Yet this blunt power of veto – a simple yes or no – will not come into play for many years. This was not, as 38 Degrees’ post and other campaigners suggest, the Final Vote on TTIP: negotiations between the EU and US have barely begun, and are unlikely to be concluded before the end of the current European Parliament in 2019. TTIP has yet to be written: until the final text presented to the European Parliament, there is no deal to vote for or against.
What Parliament can do is to influence negotiations by setting out our demands in advance: the threat of defeat at the last hurdle is too great for the Commission simply to ignore our demands, and negotiators would be very unwise to do so. This is the stage at which we find ourselves now: in Plenary on 10 June, Parliament will adopt its official position on TTIP.
Second, 38 Degrees’ campaign reduces political values and ideals to a binary opposition of right and wrong.
Trade in and of itself is not a bad thing: when it works in our best interests it can boost local economies, support small and medium sized enterprises and provide much needed jobs and training opportunities.
In 2012 I helped put together and signed the Alternative Trade Mandate, which, following extensive cooperation with civil society organisations from all over Europe, was created to promote an alternative vision of European trade policy. A trade policy that puts people and planet before big business, and that respects core EU values such as democracy, human rights, social justice and sustainability.
TTIP could present us with a unique opportunity to regulate globalisation and promote the high regulatory standards and worker rights we so cherish in the European Union. But in order to achieve these goals we need to need to mobilise; we need to take action to influence positively the direction of negotiations.
With a blindly pro-TTIP and –ISDS right-wing majority in the European Parliament, not engaging means accepting defeat before the gun has been fired. Much better to engage – with constituents, campaigners and with our Parliamentary colleagues of all political colours – in order to build majorities behind the red lines we are not prepared to see breached in a final trade deal.
This has been Labour’s strategy, with the support of our Socialist and Democrat colleagues: we simply refuse to stay silent on standards, on animal and environmental protections, on public services and on secret courts. Doing so would be to sign the Commission a blank cheque.
It is simplistic and frankly lazy on the part of 38 Degrees to brand Labour and Conservative MEPs as one and the same. Unlike my Conservative and Liberal counterparts in parliament, I have been unequivocal in my opposition to the inclusion of ISDS in TTIP and have indeed spent the last 10 years campaigning on this issue.
I don’t think that multinationals should be able to sue governments because they don’t like legislation; I don’t think they should have a parallel private legal system to defend their rights. Rather, if they feel that they are unfairly treated, they should be expected to use the ordinary court system like everyone else.
However, the issue of ISDS is the most divisive in the debate surrounding TTIP in the European Parliament. And as the makeup of the trade committee favours neoliberal ideals, there is no majority to reject secret tribunals, despite claims to the contrary. UKIP and fascist members of the trade committee, who vote against every report, reduce the left’s chances of a majority even further.
If we had not been prepared to accept a compromise on investment protection – one that did not explicitly mention ISDS – at the 11th hour, Conservative and Liberal MEPs in the trade committee were clear that they would vote down the entire report.
We had no choice but to water down my original amendment, but doing so meant that we were able to push through key amendments on several other issues of great concern to the British public. As the lead committee on TTIP, it is this report that will be presented to the Plenary for a final adoption of Parliament’s official position by all 751 MEPs. Failure to do so would have prevented the Parliament from voting on its contents, leaving MEPs with no say in how the Commission leads negotiations.
We did not accept just any compromise though: the text adopted explicitly states that we trust national courts in the case of investor protection disputes, which ends the role of special ISDS tribunals. This is already progress, even though it is not all that we hoped for.
Furthermore, contrary to claims made by 38 Degrees, compromising at committee level does not mean my position has changed: in no way have I backtracked on my rejection of private arbitration mechanisms. Rather, the Plenary vote on 10 June gives me one final chance to table amendments that explicitly rule out ISDS from TTIP and to strengthen Parliament’s position on this.
I do not believe in grandstanding on behalf of maintaining the moral high ground and making political gain. A career spent in the trade union movement has taught me the value and importance of organising in order to build support around the issues that matter in order to effect positive change. This is not a quick or simple process: it requires patience, cooperation and a willingness to accept small setbacks in the name of bigger gains down the line.
I therefore deeply regret that an organisation whose core values I share has resorted to misinformation and scaremongering tactics, reducing lengthy and complicated political process and trade negotiations to a simple equation of right versus wrong. 38 Degrees’ subscribers deserve more than this.