It may sound boring, but there’s a sting in the TTIP tail few campaigners have noticed yet which will affect all of our safety. ALEX SCRIVENER explains
COLLATERAL damage. Enhanced interrogation.
What’s the name for those phrases or words that sound relatively innocuous but are actually covering up something that’s very violent or very bad?
Here’s another one: regulatory co-operation.
Co-operation is a good thing, right?
It doesn’t sound so threatening, but it’s a masterful example of the power of language to make something terrible sound benign.
And it’s nestling at the heart of the trade deal being hammered out between the European Union and the United States.
The widespread public concern about the controversial free trade deal known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) can be largely grouped into two main themes: concern that it could mean the privatisation of the NHS, and unease about corporations being able to sue governments in secret courts (the Investor State Dispute Settlement mechanism, or ISDS).
But there’s a less well-known aspect of TTIP that could even more fundamentally and negatively affect many aspects of our lives, but it just sounds so boring that people tend to start glazing over as soon as you mention it.
To most people, regulations such as air pollution limits and food safety standards are common sense protections against dangerous threats.
However, to many big businesses, these rules are just red tape or “non-tariff barriers to trade” (NTBs) which inhibit profits.
Proponents of TTIP say that 80 per cent of the supposed benefits of the deal will come from getting rid of these NTBs.
Our new briefing shows how regulatory co-operation presents a unique opportunity for corporate interests on both sides of the Atlantic to lobby for these standards to be brought down to the lowest common denominator.
Many of the major corporate interests pushing for TTIP actually think this, not ISDS, is the aspect of the deal that is most important to them.
Some supporters of TTIP have even gone as far as to advocate sacrificing ISDS to protect regulatory co-operation.
Corporate lobbyists have expressed the hope that regulatory co-operation will make them so powerful that it will allow them to effectively “co-write” regulation with policy-makers.
Campaigners fear this could lead to the EU caving in to corporate demands to allow chlorine-washed chicken, hormone-treated meat, or more GM food.
There are even fears that it could herald a return to the use of asbestos in certain building materials.
Even if some of these fears do not become reality, at the very least it will slow down the adoption of new safety standards and regulations, delays that could cost lives, and introduce dangerous or environmentally damaging products into Europe by the back door.
Take the cosmetics sector, for instance.
The EU currently bans the use of 1,377 harmful substances for use in cosmetic products. The US bans just 11.
Even a “split the difference” type agreement on cosmetics could lead to hundreds of dangerous substances being approved for use in the EU. This could mean acceptance of additives like lead in lipstick (legal in the US).
After pressure from campaigners, the EU Commission is now saying that it is no longer pursuing harmonisation or mutual recognition of cosmetics standards.
But there has been no such undertaking from the US side, so it is perfectly possible that cosmetics regulation could be ceded to the US side in exchange for something else during the negotiation process.
What’s most dangerous about regulatory co-operation is that it will make the trade deal a so-called “living agreement.”
This means that negotiators will continue to dismantle regulation behind closed doors for years after TTIP is no longer the focus of media attention.
Put simply, it is a way for EU and US officials to remove the most controversial aspects of TTIP from the main agreement, leaving them to be discussed out of the public eye when the controversy has died down.
Proponents of TTIP say all of this is just scaremongering, but the reality is that this stuff is already happening.
The mere prospect of the deal is already weakening certain EU standards.
For example, US officials successfully used the prospect of TTIP to bully the EU into abandoning plans to ban 31 dangerous pesticides with ingredients that have been shown to cause cancer and infertility.
A similar fate befell regulations around the treatment of beef with lactic acid. This was banned in Europe because of fears that the procedure was being used to conceal unhygienic practices.
The ban was repealed by MEPs in a parliamentary committee after EU Commission officials openly suggested TTIP negotiations would be threatened if the ban wasn’t lifted.
Campaigners and concerned citizens on both sides of the Atlantic need to fight to protect hard-won standards and regulations to keep us and our environment safe.
Excluding the NHS or any other public service isn’t enough, as the regulatory race to the bottom will affect us all regardless.
TTIP should be opposed in its entirety, not just the ISDS provisions that have gained most public attention so far.
Alex Scrivener is policy officer at Global Justice Now.