“Free” Trade and the Erosion of Democratic Accountability, Part 1: The TPP Agreement

This is one of the many times when I’m going to discuss something I’m not really qualified to talk about: politics!

Specifically, my plan is to take on some very general and broadly philosophical issues by focusing on a particular case study to illustrate the point in practice. The discussion will come in three parts, the first two posts being largely informative, with discussion and analysis largely being reserved for a third post on the wider trend of which this case is but one example; namely, the erosion of the democratic accountability of economic bodies as a result of the liberalisation of trade.

One reason for focusing largely on information in this first post is that I think the case in question is hugely significant and yet almost entirely unknown by the public at large. Whilst I have no illusions about the reach of this blog and the size of its audience, the more articles and posts around discussing this issue the better, since discussion has been (almost) entirely absent from mainstream news outlets.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement

The case I want to discuss is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement. Never heard of it? Well, you should have: it’s been under discussion for around half a decade, next month will see the fifteenth round of negotiations take place in Auckland, NZ, and this summer Canada officially joined the negotiations, bringing the total number of countries involved to eleven.

Furthermore, Japan has expressed interest in joining the TPP recently. Given that America is already a signatory, if Japan was to join in addition, this would mean that two of the three largest economies in the world would be subject to the terms of the treaty. Perhaps most importantly, unlike many other comparable agreements, the TPP is a “docking” agreement, containing provisions for other countries to sign up to to the treaty in the future, so even if you don’t live in a country that’s a signatory of the TPP, you may well do eventually.

What Agreement?

Given how significant the treaty is, the obvious question to ask is why there is no discussion of its merits and advantages, no tedious and long-winded breakdown of its terms and conditions in business papers, no simplified bite-sized versions on the nightly news.

At least one reason is that all of the discussions are being conducted in secret. Want to know what your elected officials are potentially signing up for? Want to see a draft of the agreement? Want to know how the global economy is being shaped? Well tough shit. Unless you’re a rich über-capitalist fortunate enough to own or run a multi-national corporation, you have no legitimate way to access a draft of the agreement, or even know the position of the negotiators working ostensibly on your behalf.

It should say a lot about the interests that the agreement is looking to protect when U.S. Congress members don’t have access to the draft text of the agreement while lobbyists for major multi-national corporations do.

U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, the man in charge of the U.S.’s involvement in these negotiations, has, however, reassured concerned parties that after the agreement has been finalised it “may” be possible to release a draft to the public. How generous of him.

The purported reason for such secrecy?

to preserve negotiating strength and to encourage our partners to be willing to put issues on the table they may not otherwise

To translate: transparency and accountability to the public would mean that the U.S. would be forced to back down on articles in the agreement that go against public interest. There is no such risk in making the draft available to corporations, precisely because the treaty advances their interests. Kirk helpfully hints at this point in his interview with Reuters, noting that previous trade agreements have been held back after drafts were released to the public early. In other words, negotiating strength would be damaged as a result of public backlash, so to stop the pesky public involving themselves in matters that don’t concern them we just have to keep them in the dark.

However, you might legitimately wonder why anybody should care about something as esoteric and technical as a trade agreement, irrespective of how long the negotiations have been going on, how secret it is, and how many countries have joined or may join. After all, what has a trade agreement got to do with anybody not involved in international trade?

Fortunately there are two chapters that have been leaked that give some insight into how the TPP might affect the general population. A lot of what follows is partly speculation or interpretation, however, for the simple reason that even with the leaks there is little to no actual information available (there are twenty nine chapters in total). In addition, what little information we do have is extremely old and has been up for renegotiation several times since it was leaked, so it’s impossible to determine what the final agreement will look like. With that in mind, what we do know is ominous enough to warrant serious attention.

A “Trade” Agreement?

For one, to even call the TPP a trade agreement is hugely misleading. Unsurprisingly, trade agreements are supposed to deal with trade, and particularly with tariffs and quotas. The idea behind free trade agreements, in theory, is to minimise or eliminate protectionist measures like high tariffs and import quotas that restrict the flow of foreign goods into a country.

Whilst the TPP agreement does contain some trade proposals, to be explored more in the next part, the biggest problem with it is that much of the agreement has nothing to do with trade in the above sense. For example, one leaked chapter of the agreement deals exclusively with intellectual property rights, which has nothing to do with dismantling protectionism, but everything to do with protecting and extending corporate interests.

Intellectual Property Rights

The chapter on intellectual property rights reeks of ACTA- and SOPA-style “copyright protection” measures and the language is dangerously open to exploitation even where it is not explicit.

To pick just one example (see tppinfo.org for more comprehensive information about the chapter), the chapter has the potential to vastly extend the reach of anti-piracy legislation by giving corporations the right to precent and prohibit reproductions of their works (film, music and so on) “in any manner or form, permanent or temporary (including temporary storage in electronic form)“.

The problem with this wording is that you make a “temporary” copy of every file you open on your computer, meaning that even loading a webpage containing copyrighted material a violation of copyright. Furthermore, this would hold irrespective of whether you actually downloaded the file, and irrespective of whether your online encounter with the offending material was deliberate or intentional. It should go without saying that this goes well beyond even the most stringent copyright protection measures currently enshrined in law.

Affordable Medicine

Even more worryingly, the chapter on intellectual property rights has troubling implications for public access to affordable medicine. The chapter contains measures that expand the patent rights of medical corporations at the expense of the citizens that might benefit from these medicines.

For example, Doctors Without Borders released a statement condemning the leaked proposals, claiming that

the U.S. demands for the TPP negotiations threaten to roll back vitally important public health safeguards in developing countries, creating a fundamental contradiction between U.S. trade policy and U.S. commitments and priorities on global health.

The problem is that the TPP agreement (again, in its leaked form at least) contains an article that would make it easier for corporations to extend patents for indefinitely long periods of time. The chapter permits patents on a “new form, use, or method of using” an old drug. This means that if a corporation holds a patent on a drug that is about to expire, they can make a minor change to it—one that makes no difference to its actual efficacy—and file for a new patent.

This sort of corporate protectionism seriously drives up the price of drugs by preventing other companies from producing generic versions of the drug not covered by the original patent. These sorts of generics are absolutely crucial when it comes to access to life-saving medicines for the poor and those in developing countries—including, crucially, AIDS medicines—and the TPP would radically undermine the ability for companies to produce them.

In addition to these measures falling outside of the boundaries of trade, there are at least some measures in TPP that are broadly related to actual trading, and in the next post I will explore some of them and compare them to measures implemented in a similar agreement whose effects we have had time to measure: the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Stay tuned for Part Two!

2 thoughts on ““Free” Trade and the Erosion of Democratic Accountability, Part 1: The TPP Agreement

  1. Pingback: “Free” Trade and the Erosion of Democratic Accountability, Part 2: NAFTA 2.0 | CTRLtomDEL

  2. Pingback: “Free” Trade and the Erosion of Democratic Accountability, Part 3: Free for Whom? | CTRLtomDEL

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