A few weeks ago, the European Parliament gave its go-ahead to the European Commission to keep negotiating with the United States for a Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

The main aim of the proposed partnership is to create the world’s biggest free-trade zone. This covers a wide range of areas, from public services to intellectual property rights, and all sorts of regulatory issues dealing with goods and services.

Supporters of the TTIP say that it would provide an economic equivalent to Nato, creating a massive economic force that would have a huge influence on global trade rules, in the process countering the growing influence of other blocs in a multi-polar world.

Opponents, on the other hand, make the argument that the TTIP would threaten social and environmental standards in the European Union to the benefit of American-style neo-liberalism.

Mainstream political parties within Europe’s centre-right and centre-left tend to support the TTIP process, albeit with some reservations, whereas, left, green and even right-wing parties tend to be critical, though for different reasons.

Opponents of the current TTIP process also include a number of environmental NGOs such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace as well as various trade unions apart from others.

A European-wide initiative, ‘Stop TTIP’, has the support of 500 organisations spread all across EU countries, including Malta, and has collected 2.4 million signatures against the process.

The European Committee of Regions has also expressed concerns on negative impacts on local councils.

In the meantime, late in 2014, a Eurobarometer survey was held on the TTIP and it transpired that 75 per cent of Maltese respondents were “in favour of a free trade and investment agreement between the EU and the USA”. Only Lithuania had a higher percentage than Malta. Comparatively, Germany and Austria’s favourable percentage read 39 per cent each.

One would expect that the TTIP process is given more prominence

Well, one can be in favour of a free trade and investment agreement but different from the one being proposed. At least, that is my position.

I also think that it is quite worrying that this issue has hardly featured in major political debates in Malta. To be fair, Maltese MEPs Roberta Metsola, Alfred Sant and Miriam Dalli recently stated that the that final version of TTIP should not come at the cost of Europe’s protection standards, though they did not go into much detail.

For example, what is their position on agriculture and food regulations? The EU has stronger regulation than the USA on various matters, with the former banning 82 pesticides used in the USA due to health and environmental impacts. Also, the EU has a tougher regime against genetically-modified products, particularly due to consumers’ concerns.

It would also be interesting to see what mainstream politicians have to say about public services such as education in relation to TTIP, especially if these become subject to regulation which treats them as other economic services.

A main bone of contention on the TTIP is the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS). If approved, this will allow corporations to sue governments for actions deemed to limit the formers’ future profits. Cases will be heard by arbitration panels in jurisdiction of the corporation’s choice and will likely give primacy to ‘free trade’ values, possibly at the expense of other concerns, such as public health, human rights, environmental protection, workers’ rights and other social rights.

Opposition to this clause is relatively high within the EU and it continues to grow even among mainstream parties within the European Parliament.

Hence, one would expect that the TTIP process is given more prominence so that the genuine concerns that citizens, civil society organisations, businesses and other stakeholders harbour can be discussed in a constructive manner.

It is pertinent to note that both the European Parliament and the European Council had given their consent to the European Commission for a negotiating mandate for the TTIP process.

Yet, in accordance with the EU Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (article 207(3) and article 218 of the TFEU), the final TTIP agreement can only be concluded by the European Council and the member states if the European Parliament gives its consent.

Hence, the potential for an agreement which has a stronger social and environmental dimension exists.

It would be interesting to know if and when the Parliament in Malta intends to discuss the issue and whether this will be a proper debate or merely a rubber-stamping formality.

Michael Briguglio is a sociologist.

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