What’s wrong with the European Union-United States Free Trade Talks?

Cotton processed at the Cañete-Mala Processing Plant owned by ANPAL (National Association of Cotton Producers), Peru. Photo: Renato Guimaraes/Oxfam

Why is Oxfam worried about the current Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations between the EU and the US?

Oxfam believes that fair international trade is a powerful way of lifting people out of poverty, and is concerned that TTIP could do just the opposite and set new global standards that have a destructive impact on developing countries. As the EU and US account for 47 percent of global GDP, TTIP will set a new precedent for all future trade agreements – one that could strip away regulation that protects poor people, the environment and public healthcare.

Oxfam is concerned about the potential impact of TTIP on a number of issues. For example, the ability of corporations to sue governments could have a chilling effect on strong environmental laws and cause a ‘race to the bottom’ to weaken legislation designed to fight climate change – one of the main causes of global hunger. TTIP may also pose a threat to the progressive financial regulations Oxfam has campaigned for, such as the financial transaction tax set to be implemented by eleven European countries, and regulations designed to improve banking transparency. 

TTIP could also allow private corporations to bypass national courts and sue states for government action or inaction that they claim would affect their future profits, such as allowing pharmaceutical companies to sue if governments promote competition that results in cheaper versions of their medicines becoming available.

The lack of transparency around the negotiations is also concerning, as important documents on the deal are kept completely secret, meaning the public is kept in the dark and does not fully understand the risks involved.

If passed, who will be the main winners and losers of this agreement?

If the TTIP is passed as it currently stands, based on the limited information available, large transnational business will be the big winners while poor people in Europe, the US, those in poverty in developing countries and the environment will all lose out. Corporations’ ability to sue governments would allow them to bend democratic decision making to their will with laws and regulations designed to protect their profits over the public good. This could leave taxpayers to foot the average $8 million in legal fees that such lawsuits have cost in the past – regardless of the verdict.

What does Oxfam want to see to ease these concerns over TTIP?

Oxfam is calling for the negotiating texts and documents submitted by the EU and US to be made public, so concerned citizens can easily see what is being discussed. The ability of corporations to sue governments should be removed from the agreement to protect the democratic process, and important public services such as healthcare should be excluded from the deal. The EU and US should also ensure TTIP is fully consistent with their development policies and does not jeopardize their international development work or promote practices that damage public health or the environment.

Is Oxfam joining calls from other organizations like Friends of the Earth Europe to stop TTIP altogether?

Oxfam believes that if the rules are fair and benefit people living in poverty, international trade has the potential to be an engine for poverty reduction. Without knowing its full content and while negotiations are ongoing, Oxfam is not joining calls for TTIP to be scrapped but is instead highlighting how the negotiations seem designed to ‘rig the rules’ against poor people in Europe, the US and developing countries. Since the financial crash, the wealthiest one percent in the US netted 95 percent of economic growth, while the poorest 90 percent got poorer – a pattern that could be perpetuated if TTIP further prejudices trade and investment rules in favor of multinational business over wider society.

What’s next? When will the deal be signed? 

TTIP negotiations started in 2013, with the EU stating that talks could be concluded within two years. The agreement would then need to be approved by the European Parliament and EU member states, as well as the US Congress. However, the timeline is likely to stretch out much longer, which tends to occur in international trade negotiations. The process looks set to be made more difficult by grassroots opposition to the deal – particularly from European NGOs, trade unions, activists and political parties – which would likely further delay the decision-making process.