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How the Democrats Re-Branded Fast-Track

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The Democratic Party has responded to the resistance against ramming through new trade agreements by giving the process a new name. “Fast-track” has been rebranded as “smart-track” and, voilà, new packaging is supposed to make us forget the rotten hulk underneath the thin veneer.

Don’t be fooled. The Obama administration and its Senate enablers are nowhere near giving up on its two gigantic trade deals, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Because the stealthy “fast track” route — special rules speeding trade legislation through Congress with little opportunity for debate and no possibility of amendments — is the only way these corporate wish lists can be enacted, a “rebranding” is in order.

The new chair of the U.S. Senate’s Finance Committee, Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden, earlier this month, in a speech given to apparel-industry corporate executives, announced his intention to replace the “fast track” process with a “smart track” process. That is noteworthy because the Finance Committee has responsibility in the Senate for trade legislation. It also noteworthy because Senator Wyden has voted to approve the last five U.S. “free trade” agreements, going back to 2005.

Although the Transatlantic Partnership being negotiated between the United States and the European Union receives less attention than the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, neither has much chance of passing without special fast-track authority. Should Congress agree to grant the White House fast-track authority, the Obama administration would negotiate a deal and submit the text for approval to Congress under rules that would prohibit any amendments or changes, allow only a limited time for debate, and require a straight yes or no vote.

None other than the previous U.S. trade representative, Ron Kirk, said the Trans-Pacific Partnership has to be secret because if people knew what was in it, it would never pass. We should take him at his word.

Tell the people what they want to hear

On the surface, Senator Wyden’s speech to the American Apparel & Footwear Association Conference on April 10 sounds conciliatory. He made the standard ritual references, calling for trade agreements that create jobs and “expand … the winners’ circle.” The senator proclaimed:

“I want to be very clear: only trade agreements that include several ironclad protections based on today’s great challenges can pass through Congress. I am not going to accept or advance anything less.”

He did not fail to declare that “strong standards and enforcement” on labor and environmental standards “is an imperative.” But we can be forgiven skepticism here because Senator Wyden had this to say on existing labor and environmental standards:

“People on all sides of the trade debate should more openly acknowledge the progress in these areas and the hard work that went into getting those reforms.”

Progress? There are no enforceable rules concerning these areas in existing trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement. Lost jobs, reduced wages, more unemployment, higher food prices and reversals of environmental laws have invariably been the results. Unaccountable, secret tribunals staffed by corporate lawyers have enabled corporations to overturn regulations in all three NAFTA countries — and the U.S. government, in its current trade negotiations, wants rules even more weighted in favor of multi-national corporations than exists in NAFTA.

If this is what Senator Wyden considers to be “progress,” what possible basis could there be for believing the Trans-Pacific and Transatlantic partnerships will deliver anything other than more corporate-dictated austerity?

The existing version of fast-track legislation — the Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities Act of 2014, better known as the Camp-Baucus bill — was effectively dead not long after its January release. It was expected that a new version of fast-track, with a couple of small, cosmetic changes and a cover story that opponents had been heard, would come. Senator Wyden has not disappointed, and it’s coming perhaps quicker than activists expected. This will become a hot potato as the November mid-term elections approach, so the senator was careful in his speech to not provide a timetable:

“I am going to work with my colleagues and stakeholders on a proposal that accomplishes these goals [of more transparency] and attracts more bipartisan support. As far as I’m concerned, substance is going to drive the timeline.”

‘Consultation’ only to let people vent

The perception of more transparency and public participation is all that we are likely to see, perhaps on the model of the European Union’s new public-consultation process. The process centers on a web site that E.U. citizens can use to fill out a questionnaire. The page is complicated to use, and has a 90-minute time limit, after which any imputed data is wiped out. Write fast! And for good measure, the E.U. trade commissioner, Karel De Gucht, once again declared, in his last visit to Washington:

“[W]e are happy to be scrutinized on this: no standard in Europe will be lowered because of this trade deal; not on food, not on the environment, not on social protection, not on data protection. I will make sure that [the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership] does not become a ‘dumping’ agreement.”

Neither his office, nor that of the U.S. trade representative, Michael Froman, have been kind enough to share with the public when the next Transatlantic negotiating session will be held. There has been no lack of communication with corporate lobbyists, however. A European public-interest group, Corporate Europe Observatory, requested documents from the European Commission (the bureaucratic arm of the E.U.) to discover with whom E.U. negotiators are consulting.

It was revealed that of 127 closed meetings concerning the Transatlantic Partnership talks, at least 119 were with large corporations and their lobbyists. The Observatory reports:

“The list of meetings reveals that … there is a parallel world of a very large number of intimate meetings with big business lobbyists behind closed doors — and these are not disclosed online. These meetings, moreover, were about the EU’s preparations of the trade talks, whereas the official civil society consultation was merely an information session after the talks were launched. The Commission’s rhetoric about transparency and about consulting industry and NGOs on an equal basis is misleading and gives entirely the wrong impression of [the European Commission’s] relations with stakeholders.”

Three German Green Party members of the European Parliament (Ska Kellar, Rebecca Harms and Sven Giegold) have leaked the E.U.’s position paper on the Transatlantic Partnership negotiations (Members of the European Parliament are shut out of the negotiations.) Although this leak offers only a glimpse at E.U. negotiating positions, Europeans have a basis for concern. A rough English translation of the leaked document (available only in German) states:

“The agreement will provide for the reciprocal liberalization of trade in goods and services and rules on trade-related issues, which it pursues through ambitious goals that go beyond what is available via the existing WTO commitments.”

Although it also says the agreement will include a “general exception clause” on the basis of articles XX and XXI of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which purport to allow exceptions to trade agreements when necessary to safeguard human, animal or plant life or health, such clauses are meaningless. Other agreements have similar clauses, but are consistently superseded by rules such as Article 12.6 of the Trans-Pacific Partnership text that “Each Party shall accord to covered investments treatment in accordance with customary international law.”

‘Customary law’ is what a secret tribunal says it is

Precedents handed down in secret tribunals are what constitute “customary international law.” That the E.U. negotiators intend to “go beyond” the rules of the World Trade Organization should leave no doubt that “law” as desired by multi-national corporations is what is contemplated. Indeed, the leaked E.U. text states an intention to:

“Provide a level playing field for investors in the U.S. and in the EU. … The agreement should provide an effective mechanism for the settlement of disputes between investors and the state.”

That goal should be borne in mind when evaluating the E.U.’s April 10 announcement that it has refused to include the standard investor-state dispute rules in its proposed trade agreement with Canada, despite Canada’s now dropped insistence that it be included. Inside U.S. Trade reports that:

“Canada and the EU have agreed to a ‘closed list’ approach toward defining what constitutes a breach of fair and equitable treatment that was proposed by the EU. … The closed list that the two parties agreed upon is comprised of: denial of justice in criminal, civil or administrative proceedings; a fundamental breach of due process; manifest arbitrariness; targeted discrimination on manifestly wrongful grounds; and abusive treatment of investors.”

On the surface, the “closed list” approach to the bases over which a corporation can sue a government appears to have narrowed from the more common approach that places no limits on corporate suits. But, critics say, the list of arbitrable issues remains open-ended and open to corporate abuse. The Canadian public interest group International Institute for Sustainable Development, in a recently updated paper, warns:

“The definition of investment is defined too broadly, covering any kind of asset, independent of whether or not investments are associated with an existing enterprise in the host state. … [The E.U. proposal would] make the concept of fair and equitable treatment very open-ended and, as a consequence, highly problematic.”

The agreed-upon language, by not defining what constitutes an “asset,” would enable corporations unlimited opportunities to sue governments. Any rule or regulation that a corporation says will reduce its profits remains eligible to be overturned under the precedents of “customary international law.” The text of the agreements — and how they are likely to be interpreted — count for vastly more than the happy talk of trade negotiators, whichever side of the Atlantic or Pacific oceans.

European countries with strong regulations on the environment or food safety are at grave risk from the U.S., and environmental laws everywhere are prime targets. Activist work against these multi-national trade agreements has gained momentum in the past year, but there is much work to be done to stop what constitutes the most destructive corporate power grabs yet. Popular pressure is the only means to stop the Trans-Pacific, Transatlantic and Canada-E.U. trade deals. The next task will be to reverse existing trade deals that have done so much damage.

Pete Dolack writes the Systemic Disorder blog. He has been an activist with several groups.

Pete Dolack writes the Systemic Disorder blog and has been an activist with several groups. His book, It’s Not Over: Learning From the Socialist Experiment, is available from Zero Books.

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