Daniel Hamilton is a Senior Director at FTI Consulting. He writes in a personal capacity.
Over recent months, the debate about the passage of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) has rapidly intensified. Originally conceived as a free trade deal designed to remove artificial barriers between the economies of the European Union and the United States, the debate has been plagued by misinformation and indecision – to the detriment of businesses and consumers.
A good deal for business and consumers
For British, European and American businesses, the benefits of TTIP can be distilled into four key points:
1. TTIP would eliminate custom duties on goods and services between the EU and US – a £2 billion daily trading corridor. While existing trade agreements have already ended most trade barriers, TTIP’s completion would be worth an extra £400 per year for an average British family of four.
2. TTIP would harmonise standards and regulations on goods and services between the EU and US. This would reduce secondary costs by eliminating many non-tariff barriers, and by giving firms complete access to each other’s respective jurisdictions. This would go a considerable distance towards eliminating the problem of firms being prevented from bidding for lucrative contracts in each other’s markets due to a lack of technical and regulatory convergence. European Commission estimates suggest that bureaucratic hurdles that must be overcome in order for an EU-based business to trade in the US are equivalent to a 20 per cent customs duty. Under TTIP, these hurdles would vanish.
3. TTIP would allow fair and transparent public procurement. At present, the EU’s own public procurement framework ensures a level playing field for firms inside the EU. This system disadvantages US firms, just as American procurement processes freeze out EU companies. TTIP would remove this bias towards home market firms and allow for free bidding across EU and US markets.
4. TTIP would protect investors by providing a legal mechanism (the Investor State Dispute Settlement – ISDS) for businesses to appeal and challenge government decisions which unfairly threaten their business practices and investments.
“The opportunities for Britain of trading more with the United States of America,” David Cameron argued, “are clear: two million extra jobs, more choice and lower prices in our shops”.
With such compelling benefits on offer, it has come as a matter of considerable surprise to many that the debate over the agreement has been so caustic and emotive.
The chief concerns of those who oppose TTIP tend to revolve around three key areas: the extension of private sector involvement in health service provision, the weakening of environmental standards and the weakening of regulations on the banking sector. While little can be done to change the minds of those approaching matters from an avowedly socialist or anti-globalisation position, the British government has been clear in its commitment to seek an exemption for healthcare services from the final agreement, while environmental standards and banking regulations in the US are already broadly comparable with those in the EU.
Other opposition has also been felt across the EU - from the French creative industries, who feel that the deal may threaten their music and film culture, to campaigners in Italy who fear it will undermine domestic agriculture and “prestige” national food products. In each case, efforts are being made by EU negotiators to ameliorate these concerns ahead of the formal publication of a deal.
Unclear party-political positions
Over the past two decades, British political attitudes towards the EU, its policies, processes and treaty bases have been polarised between an increasingly Eurosceptic Conservative Party and a broadly pro-European Labour Party.
The issue of TTIP has proved a little more complex, however, with Conservatives seizing upon the policy as a means by which to tie the EU economy and its institutions closer to the United Kingdom, while many in the Labour Party are uncomfortable at what they perceive as the extension of American influence over public service provision and industrial relations law.
Against the backdrop of the referendum, the spectacle of the Conservative Party banging the drum for an EU policy while the Labour Party makes cautious noises from the side-lines is a peculiar one. Indeed, even many Conservatives who support Britain’s exit from the European Union have been keen to state their intention to pursue the completion of a revised form of TTIP in the eventuality that the UK does leave the EU.
The contentious debate has spilled over into UKIP. While the automatic impulse of the party’s activists is to oppose all legislative measures led by the EU, Roger Helmer MEP – the party’s leader in the European Parliament – has adopted a more nuanced line. In comments emailed to constituents last month, Helmer directly confronted the “hysterical fears” that had been raised over the prospect of the ISDS allowing for undue corporate influence over government decisions, referencing the existence of 1,400 existing European bilateral treaties and the “commonplace” nature of such dispute resolution mechanisms.
Taking a leadership role
Given the lack of a firm political consensus – even inside individual parties – clear opportunities exist for the business community to take the lead in the championing of the completion of TTIP. Time is of the essence.
The European Parliament has already demonstrated a degree of dissent towards completing the deal. Last month, a scheduled vote on the package was postponed after genuine fears that a loose coalition of centre, far-left and anti-globalisation MEPs might muster enough support to derail its passage.
The American picture is similarly complicated. While Obama has been an outspoken supporter of the deal in recent months, he does so from the position of being term-limited. Never again will he be forced to pay lip-service to protectionist US agriculture policies in order to secure the votes of Iowa farmers or advocate measures to boost America’s domestic automotive industry in order to pick up support in Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania. With an eye on re-election in 2020, an incoming President in January 2017 may not view the deal so positively.
Ongoing delays, brought about by the concerns of MEPs and powerful voices in national governments, risk forcing TTIP into the long grass and adding billions in unnecessary charges to British and European businesses.
Rather than sit on the sidelines, the business community – investment-makers, job-creators and employment-sustainers – must make a compelling case for urgent action on both a national and European level.
As David Cameron said: “we’re talking about what could be the biggest bilateral trade deal in history, a deal which will have a greater impact than all the other trade deals on the table put together”. That’s worth fighting for.
The views expressed herein are those of the author and not necessarily the views of FTI Consulting LLP, its management, its subsidiaries, its affiliates, or its other professionals, members of employees.