An antidote to austerity has finally been discovered. It involves breaking down the "barriers" between two of the world's economic powerhouses: Europe and the United States.
That is the spin being put on a planned trans-Atlantic "trade and investment partnership" (TTIP, for short). Supporters of the proposed deal contend it will help usher in a recovery.
Months before talks between the EU and US got underway in July, the European commissioner for trade Karel de Gucht said they would lead to "the cheapest stimulus package you can imagine". The delightfully-named Myron Brilliant from the US Chamber of Commerce dreams of a "more robust" commercial relationship because neither side will "emerge from the financial crisis through austerity alone". BusinessEurope, an alliance of employers' groups, believes TTIP will provide a "fantastic opportunity" to "generate the jobs and growth we need to turn our economies around".
Funnily, nobody has a clear idea of just how beneficial the "partnership" will be. The Washington Post recently carried a blog post forecasting that it would boost EU-US trade by $180 billion each year. Yet that figure did not appear in the source cited by The Post - a 2010 study partly financed by the aforementioned US Chamber of Commerce.
Hyping up TTIP as a rescue remedy is, no doubt, a deliberate ploy to divert attention from its real objective of binning regulations that are essential for protecting health and the environment.
The goal of a trans-Atlantic trade pact was first mooted by Leon Brittan, then the EU's trade commissioner, in 1995. Though the goal hasn't captured the public imagination for the past 18 years, representatives of some of the world's top companies have been working quietly towards realising it.
The Transatlantic Business Council (TABC), for example, brings together British American Tobacco, IBM, BP, Pfizer, Deutsche Bank and Nasdaq. Under the "partnership", it wants new laws to undergo mandatory assessments of their likely impact on trans-Atlantic trade. At first glance, this may appear technical and innocuous. Yet the idea of mandatory impact assessment was pioneered by cigarette-makers during the 1990s in a bid to stave off anti-smoking measures.
Big Tobacco's fingerprints smudge quite a few of the initiatives that paved the way for the trans-Atlantic talks. From 2007 until 2012, the Brussels office of the Trans Atlantic Business Dialogue (as the TABC was then known) was headed by Jeffries Briginshaw, who had previously spent 14 years with British American Tobacco. Briginshaw is now the managing director of BritishAmerican Business, a London-based outfit that has threatened to subject a "road show" promoting the trade deal on the public.
It is not hard to see the attraction of the planned deal for the cigarette industry. The European Commission is committed to having a clause in it that will allow corporations to sue governments over laws that constitute a "barrier" to their activities in a specialised court. The history of arbitration panels resulting from trade liberalisation agreements is that they are headed by pro-corporate lawyers, not impartial judges. Last year, the World Trade Organisation ruled that the US would have to lift its ban on clove-flavoured cigarettes, which have been designed to entice teenagers. Shielding the young from sweetened carcinogens is not permissible, according to the zealots of the "free market".
Culture is the only significant topic that has been removed from the scope of the negotiations so far. France has rightly been adamant that it be allowed maintain quotas to prevent its film-makers being buried under an avalanche of Hollywood dross.
Otherwise, the European negotiators seem to be eager that this continent be transformed into a carbon copy of America. Brussels officials have committed themselves to revisiting - code for "weakening" - their food safety standards. This will, no doubt, cheer up Monsanto, which has become increasingly frustrated with hippy parents like me, who would prefer not to feed genetically modified vegetables to our kids.
In some respects, the EU side may be even more eager to please big business than the Americans. Michel Barnier, Europe's commissioner for the single market, has insisted that financial services should be up for discussion, despite signals that the US administration wants them excluded.
Rules on banks have been relaxed in the not so distant past. And we know what the consequences were: a global crisis. We are still living with the effects of that crisis, so why does the EU elite want history to repeat itself?
Far from prescribing an antidote to austerity, a trade deal could perpetuate the shock therapy now being administered.
•First published by New Statesman, 26 July 2013.
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