As European Union and U.S. negotiators arrived for the latest round of controversial trade talks in Brussels on Monday, opponents of the mammoth TransAtlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) made their resistance known by blockading access to the negotiating site for hours.
The demonstration highlighted growing, transcontinental opposition to the pro-corporate trade agreement, which would impact 800 million people and account for nearly 30 percent of the global economy.
Beginning Monday morning, 30 Greenpeace activists from seven countries chained themselves at the entrances of a conference center where the meeting was due to take place. Some demonstrators climbed the front of the building to deploy a large banner depicting a 'dead-end' road sign that read: "TTIP: dead end trade deal."
The blockade was lifted only after Belgian police secured a side entrance for negotiators.
Demanding an end to the talks, Greenpeace vowed "to continue to take peaceful action against TTIP to defend democracy, people, and the environment."
"This trade deal is not about trade," said Greenpeace TTIP campaigner Susan Jehoram Cohen on Monday. "It's about the transfer of power from people to big business."
She continued: "What the Commission calls barriers to trade are in fact the safeguards that keep toxic pesticides out of our food or dangerous pollutants out of the air we breathe. The negotiators who were supposed to meet in secret today want to weaken these safeguards to maximize corporate profits, whatever the costs for society and the environment. It’s our responsibility to expose them and give a voice to the millions who oppose this trade deal."
Indeed, close to 3.5 million European citizens have already signed an EU petition against the TTIP, while hundreds of thousands have voiced their opposition in the streets ofBerlin, Amsterdam, Brussels, and other capitals.
Significant concerns have been lodged regarding plans to set up a special TTIP tribunal for foreign investors, which Greenpeace and many others decry as "a major instrument in the handover of power to big business."
EU sources have said this 12th round of negotiations would focus—for the first time—on these corporate courts, which are a cornerstone of not just the TTIP but also of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the draft EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA).
Meanwhile, a new report (pdf) released Monday by Friends of the Earth Europe, Sierra Club, and the European environmental network Transport & Environment, illustrates the threat of such Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provisions.
The analysis focuses specifically on how TransCanada Corporation is using investor privileges in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to demand $15 billion from the U.S. government following its rejection of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.
"Tar sands are a climate killer and the Obama Administration was right to block Keystone XL," said Colin Roche, extractives campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe. "Trade policy should not be a backdoor for corporations to challenge or dissuade measures to tackle climate change. It's time to drop investor-state dispute mechanisms in any form, stop harmful trade deals and start taking necessary action to stop climate destruction."
The European Commission is attempting to rebrand ISDS as an "Investment Court System," a move the Brussels-based Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) denounced last week as a ploy "to get around the enormous public opposition to legal privileges for multinational corporations."
As CEO wrote last week in its own report, The Zombie ISDS (pdf):
In an attempt to get around the enormous opposition generated by ISDS, the European Commission chose a different label when, in autumn 2015, it released a revised proposal for all the EU’s ongoing and future investment negotiations, including TTIP. Instead of the ‘old’ ISDS system, the Commission promised a ‘new’ and allegedly independent system, supposed to protect governments’ right to regulate: the Investment Court System or ICS.
The analysis in this report shows that the proposed ICS does not put an end to ISDS. Quite the opposite, it would empower thousands of companies to circumvent national legal systems and sue governments in parallel tribunals if laws and regulations undercut their ability to make money. It would pave the way for billions in taxpayer money being paid out to big business. It could curtail desirable policymaking to protect people and the planet. And it threatens to lock EU member states forever into the injustices of the ISDS regime.
Similar concerns were raised in a recent report by the German Bundestag's parliamentary research unit, as well as by a German judges' association.
And in the UK on Monday, a major trade union is warning that privatization of elements of the National Health Service could be made irreversible for future governments wanting to restore services to public hands, according to the Guardian.
Given all this, it's unsurprising that "we are seeing signs of panic setting in on the pro-TTIP side of the fence," Global Justice Now trade campaigner Guy Taylor wrote on Monday.
Aside from the crisis over corporate courts and other sticking points, there's the matter of timeline, Taylor explained. The TTIP "should have been signed off by now, and well into the 'legal scrubbing' stage where the lawyers tie up the legal loose ends and smooth of the rough edges," he wrote. "These negotiations are not open ended. Every delay, every extra month taken up at this stage is a threat to the entire project."
In other words, Taylor concluded, "We can win this fight if we continue to step up the pressure."
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