The potential dangers of TTIP: an interview with Nick Dearden

19 April 2016

The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) has garnered the support of many world leaders including Barack Obama, David Cameron, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. They say it will boost the economy and create jobs, and there has been a concerted effort to push TTIP through quickly. However, there has been a growing body of evidence that shows a darker side to the deal. In May 2016, Greenpeace leaked documents from the highly secretive negotiations of this deal, which showed the risks to the environment and our food system and highlighted how big business would gain greater powers at the expense of democracy. Greenpeace stated: ‘TTIP is about a huge transfer of power from people to big business’. One example of this is how TTIP will enable companies to sue governments whose policies damage their interests.

A petition demanding an end to TTIP reached three million signatures in October 2015. The petition was launched a year ago by the ‘Stop TTIP’ campaign, a coalition of NGOs, trade unions and consumer groups. One of the main organisations behind the petition was Global Justice Now. The director of this British NGO Nick Dearden talked to Richard Glass about the threats posed by TTIP, and its lesser-known sister agreement the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA).

Disclaimer: Please note the views expressed in this interview are not the views of Fairfood International

You were one of organisations behind Europe’s biggest petition to oppose TTIP. You yourself have written ‘it’s up to us to reclaim our democracy as citizens’. Why is the threat to democracy so great and why should people be so wary of this deal?

It’s probably the biggest transfer of power from citizens to corporations in one agreement that we’ve seen in two decades maybe. Way back in the 90s they were talking about similar deals, such as the Multilateral Agreement on Investment and that was stopped by popular protest. So this has been on the cards for a long time. This is only a vehicle for going even further then our economy has already been drifting over the last 30 or 40 years. It’s the latest offensive within a much broader neoliberal trend towards a global economy and society run by and for transnational corporations. It’s an important offensive and it’s one we’ve got to stop. In stopping it, we don’t want to just stop this deal itself, but also go on to use this campaign to question why it is that corporations have so much power in the world today. That’s behind many of the great issues of our generation from climate change to inequality and poverty.

The way you talk about it sounds like a conspiracy theory: a secret enclave of corporations conspiring together to bring about the downfall of the world. It is such a concerted, coordinated attempt to do that?

When we first started talking about TTIP, people looked at us like we were expressing a conspiracy theory, but that changed as soon as the information came out into the public sphere through leaks and analysis conducted by campaigners comparing this with other trade agreements. It is really clear now that this deal is part and parcel of a deregulatory agenda that corporations have been pushing for a long time, which gives corporations special legal privileges that are not open to normal individuals in the countries where the trade agreement operates. So, what at first glance might appear like some far-fetched claim has been backed up by all the information that has come to light.

I don’t think these people are meeting in shadowy rooms to discuss the carve-up of the world. However, the elite in this world, who have unarguably got much richer and therefore more powerful in the last 30 or 40 years, do meet at global economic forums like Davos. These people do know each other and do communicate with each other. I think in many ways the evidence is out there for us to see that the powerful use connections in order to put forward proposals and solutions to the world’s problems that serve their own interests. The system that has emerged, the global economy and globalisation, is precisely about putting rules in place that make it easier for corporations to grow and make money. It’s not a conspiracy. It’s the system we live in and it is quite obvious that is how it operates. And, as I have already said, deals like TTIP have been talked about for quite a long time now. There is a strategy based on the current ideology that governs our society, that private is better than the public.

Talking about the trade deals, Noam Chomsky has said: ‘There’s a reason why this is kept secret from the public.’ Is the truth as dark as this sounds?

If even our elected representatives have such limited ability to read these texts – they have to sign secrecy documents and they’re not allowed to take their phones in to this special room in Brussels – that says something.

This is a massive deal, so why precisely are the citizens of Europe and the US not allowed to read it? Is this really how you make decisions in a democracy? You don’t need to make conspiracies up any longer because this is how our laws are created – in secret, in negotiating rooms. And who has the most access to the negotiators? It’s big business.

You’ve talked about how TTIP would lead to ‘entrenchment of inequality’ and potential loss of millions of jobs. Could you expand on how you think this would happen precisely?

The million job losses are interesting. That is from the European commission itself. TTIP has been sold primarily as all about creating new jobs and creating growth in Europe and the United States, but if you actually look at the risk assessment that was done by the European commission a couple of years ago and the details that have just been released in the last week, it actually predicts about 1 million jobs will be lost. But there’s also been criticism that the European Commission’s risk assessment is actually extremely optimistic. There have been other assessments, including one done by Tuft’s University, that predict serious job losses, but also an extreme move of who owns the economy further in favour of big business and away from ordinary people. This makes it really clear, I think, how this a deal for the 1%.

Noam Chomsky recently said ‘the so-called free trade agreements are not free trade agreements. These are investor rights agreements’. To what extent do you share this summary?

That’s very true. It’s made to sound nice: the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. One of the root problems is trying to get people to understand what this is all about. It isn’t really about trade. And it has very little to do with tariff barriers: the heart of what trade agreements are traditionally about. So Chomsky is right. This is mainly about investment. Investment itself sounds like it must be a wonderful thing, but actually what we mean by investment is changing the rules of the game so they favour the investor i.e. transnational capital over the people in the society where the investment is being made in. And actually that’s an enormous problem is, because what we’ve seen over the last 20 or 30 years is a huge increase in flows of transnational capital to other countries, but the deregulation of any kind of structure in those countries capable of making sure that capital works for ordinary people. In reality, TTIP is not really about us as Europeans and Americans. It really is about big business on both sides of the Atlantic versus people on both sides of the Atlantic. You could call it an investment deal if you want, but it’s really a corporate pact to benefit corporate interests.

You have talked about the threat from TTIP to the food and agricultural sectors, especially local and organic produce. Could you explain further what you see as the threats in that sector?

TTIP is about deregulation across the board, so that could be public services or energy, but it could be also food. And food has been really picked up on, primarily because our standards on how we produce food is so different to that in the US. In the US, they have an extremely, intensive animal rights unfriendly model of food production. They have very large farms, hormone and chemical intensive food production, as well as antibiotics and chlorine washes being used on animals. In Germany, this got people really scared because all of a sudden it opens up the possibility that we will have American food made within industrial, chemically intensive, agricultural models competing with small farmers in Europe who are trying to grow things in an organic way, taking animal welfare as much as possible into account.

It’s not going to be a long before they out-compete European producers and all we’re eating is the intensive GMO model of food, which will be appearing on our supermarket shelves. Chlorine treated chicken became the symbol of that in, because chlorinated chicken is precisely about how you make food as cheaply as possible not worrying about human health or animal welfare. In a TTIP world, it isn’t just chlorine chicken but every aspect of our lives; everything we eat. The only thing that matters is how cheap it is to buy. So none of the standards that we’ve employed to create a slightly more equitable and pleasant farming system matter. The only thing that matters at is having as few regulations as possible so that it can be cheap. In that way the whole of our society is just turned into a gigantic marketplace where everything just becomes a commodity. And every rule no matter how democratically desired is simply seen as being an obstacle to big business being able to trade goods. So food and farming are a key area which I think shows the damage that TTIP will bring and how it will affect every aspect of our lives.

Up until now the EU has been fairly resistant to GM food and companies like Monsanto compared to many other countries worldwide. If TTIP were to be introduced wouldn’t new laws allowing companies to sue governments change this?

Yes it could do and we have seen already from the processes of negotiating TTIP and sister agreement CETA a speeding up of approval for certain GM products coming into Europe. The American administration has been extremely clear in saying “look you are going to be in TTIP soon so let’s start acting as if we already are” and speeding up some of these processes. The American Secretary of Agriculture has also been really clear and said on numerous occasions that these food standards we Europeans seem to like so much are not based on any scientific evidence and we just need to get real about the food you eat, because Americans eat this stuff and they’re completely fine. There is no doubt that that’s a very big part of the picture for the United States. It doesn’t necessarily mean that a company could come in at the current time and sue the European commission, for example, for the bans that it has got on GM, but what it does mean is that there’s a loosening and liberalisation of those laws. And that’s the real worry, that essentially what TTIP does is lock in a the privatisation and liberalisation of our societies, which would be extremely difficult for future governments to get out of, because they would risk being sued by big business in secret courts.

What is the benefit for the EU in agreeing to this, if it goes against so many of the stances they have taken up until now?

One of the problems with institutions like the EU is that civil servants and politicians tend to become quite cut off from ordinary citizens, but they hear big business speaking in their ear regularly. And they’ve probably been through a whole education system that tells them the only way you’re going to make Europe grow is by allowing corporations to do whatever they want, because that’s how they work best: you deregulate them and privatise everything. I think that ideology plays a huge role in why the European Council and the European Commission, where all our governments meet, are so keen on this treaty. They simply don’t think there’s another way in the modern world, the globalised world, of achieving growth and therefore employing people without basically doing whatever corporations say. I think they believe this is absolutely central to a European recovery and how we get over the financial crisis. I think it’s absolute rubbish, because one of the things it will do apart from anything else is prevent us from properly regulating the financial sector to prevent another financial crisis from happening. One of the main groups lobbying for TTIP is the financial industry, especially in the City of London, and what they’re lobbying for is a liberalisation of rules around financial regulation.

You have been very vocal in highlighting dangers of TTIP’s sister deal, the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA). The Dutch government recently refused to give information about CETA negotiations to Greenpeace. Why do so few people know about this and why is it so important?

There are a number of issues. One of them is that we didn’t start campaigning soon enough. We didn’t do that because we didn’t think it was going to resonate with people in Europe. Why is that? People fear our economy becoming more like the American economy, which I don’t think they feel when it comes to Canada, because people think that Canada sounds like a nice place. They can’t name any big Canadian multinational corporations; therefore they don’t need to be so worried about CETA. It just doesn’t arouse so many fears as TTIP does. That’s wrong. Just like TTIP isn’t really about us against the American people, neither is CETA about us versus the Canadian people. It’s about giving big business more power on both sides of the Atlantic.

Having said that there is real resistance beginning to grow now. I think we can actually stop it or at least delay the process for longer than foreseen, so it won’t pass into law at the beginning of next year, but we will have to be subject to debates in various member parliaments, which will take a long time. There has to be a proper debate about it, so I think it is possible to stop it. It is dangerous because it’s really TTIP by the back door.

What would your message be for European consumers and citizens regarding the trade deals and how can they get involved?

Whoever thought we could take a dry-sounding trade deal (which sounds good to most people), and make it an issue which gets over 3 million people opposing it in 12 months, 1500 local authorities declaring themselves ‘TTIP free’, and 250,000 people on the streets of Berlin. If you can do this, you can do anything. We’re going to beat TTIP – and we want you to be part of it, so get involved, sign up for the updates, write to your local councillors, write to your government, protest, and win! And when we’ve won, let’s go on to start rolling back corporate power in our societies. Let’s start reclaiming our democracy. The campaign against TTIP shows it’s all possible.

More information

Visit the Global Justice Now website, where you can also sign up for email updates on their work and find out more about Nick Dearden. He has also written a number of articles about TTIP and the CETA agreements in The Guardian.