I am the European Labour Party spokesperson on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and the Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement.
It’s four months since Paul and I took our seats formally in the European Parliament, representing the whole of the North East from Tweed to Tees.
After the election, each MEP was given a set of specific responsibilities for the next 5 years. Mine are related to following the EU’s international trade negotiations and internal energy, research and industrial policies. I am the European Labour Party spokesperson on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and the Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement. Plus the international negotiations on a trade in services agreement. Or TTIP, CETA and TiSA as they are known – we want not for acronyms!
Clearly TTIP is one of our top priorities. Since May’s elections, there hasn’t been a day in which I haven’t received dozens of queries on TTIP. If an agreement was reached it would cover half of world trade. It’s no wonder and on the contrary important that people are and your elected representatives consider it a priority.
But when people ask me are you for or against TTIP - I say it’s too early to say.
We haven't got a TTIP text to judge yet; we only have hopes and fears.
We have hopes that TTIP could be beneficial to the economy. It could offer new customers to our businesses, and deliver cheaper products to consumers across Europe. Opening up markets for our industries and allowing our SMEs to trade more, underpins our jobs locally. We are the only the region with a trade surplus, we should not be afraid of trade per se.
But we also have fears that TTIP could weaken the safety standards we rely on, and weaken the values of fairness and democracy we cherish.
Hopes and fears are not good enough to reach an informed position.
We need a text to analyse. Without such a text, we can only have a hunch - and important choices cannot be left to a hunch.
As it stands, there is no agreement on anything yet: nothing on investor protection, nothing on labour rights, nothing on public services. The negotiations have just started, and they’ll go on for years.
So we have one of two options to choose from. We can say that the outcome of the negotiations will be terrible and reject TTIP no matter what.
Or we can aim to get TTIP right, and shape it as an instrument for promoting rather than weakening our values, a deal that benefits the many rather than just the few.
Out of these two options, I chose the latter, because I believe it's the battle we can win.
But let me be very clear. If we fail to steer TTIP in the right direction, if we end up with an agreement that threatens the NHS or our right to regulate the economy, then we will oppose it.
And we will have to make sure that we will not be alone: we'll need a majority in the European Parliament and in Westminster to support us.
This is where public interest and campaigns are so important: raising awareness in the streets of Newcastle, Newquay and Norwich is crucial to ensure that inside Westminster and across Europe our redlines become everyone's redlines:
We don't want public services, especially the NHS in TTIP!
We don’t want to see the weakening of labour, consumer or environmental standards through trade agreements!
And we don't want corporations to have privileged access to secret courts to sue governments for defending our common public interest!
But let’s be very clear - it's not TTIP that is the greatest threat to the NHS or public services in the UK; it's this Coalition government.
TTIP cannot directly force the privatisation of any public services in Europe.
How public services are organised and financed is a choice of national and local governments, but as soon as there is private capital involved, these are considered market services. So while publicly-funded public services are explicitly out of the Commission’s negotiating mandate - and you can check it for yourself. It’s finally been published following months of our campaigning for greater transparency - this does not mean that our public services will be entirely safe in TTIP without further clear exemptions if we want to avoid this Government’s privatisations being locked in.
The EU recently concluded another trade deal with Canada, which is seen as a blueprint for TTIP. In it, for the first time the EU has adopted a negative list approach to service offers – meaning any service not explicitly out of the agreement is automatically included.
The current UK government is putting our welfare state out to tender to their friends, a future Labour government has committed to repealing the Health and Social Care Act. And we need to ensure that TTIP does not get in our way.
So we will need a much better deal excluding all our public services if we’re to accept any TTIP.
Let me turn to those secret tribunals I mentioned or investor-state dispute settlement.
ISDS is based on the premise that foreign investors need protection. And they may do, but so do all other citizens. Any system must balance corporate interests with the general interest.
There is something inherently wrong with ISDS.
The idea that privately appointed judges can impose huge penalties on entire countries without democratic oversight shows this is a system that is flawed beyond repair.
It's time for the Commission to start looking at alternatives.
There are already 4 member states of the EU, including Germany, calling for ISDS to be dropped. The tide is changing.
But the Coalition government as always is leading the rear guard, and keeps defending ISDS. On this too, our campaign for a better TTIP must start in London.
We can move forward on TTIP. There is much at stake and greater democratic engagement is the only way to ensure that our trade policies – which are so vital to us as a region – are used to promote socially-just, sustainable economic integration. Today, nothing is lost and nothing gained so make your voices heard on the need for a deal for people and planet not just profit.