Eurosceptics oppose the move to “ever closer union” for several reasons. One of the most important is that it is not compatible with the sovereignty of the British people. Another is that the EU system of law is constituted on a fundamentally different basis from our own legal traditions.
However, in taking a stand, British Eurosceptics need to be consistent. If these are valid reasons for resisting EU encroachment, then equivalent threats from other sources must also be resisted.
For instance, concern is growing over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – the proposed free trade agreement between Europe and America.
On the face of it, this might seem to be a good thing, but, in the Guardian, George Monbiot advises us to read the small print:
“The UK government, like that of the US and 13 other EU members, wants to set up a separate judicial system, exclusively for the use of corporations. While the rest of us must take our chances in the courts, corporations across the EU and US will be allowed to sue governments before a tribunal of corporate lawyers. They will be able to challenge the laws they don’t like, and seek massive compensation if these are deemed to affect their “future anticipated profits”.
“I’m talking about the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and its provisions for ‘investor-state dispute settlement’. If this sounds incomprehensible, that’s mission accomplished: public understanding is lethal to this attempted corporate coup.”
There’s a crucial difference here between a conventional free trade agreement which is about removing tariffs and other trade barriers, and TTIP which would severely constrain the law-making powers of national parliaments:
“Investor-state dispute settlement – ISDS – means allowing corporations to sue governments over laws that might affect their profits.”
Furthermore, they would be able to do so through what amounts to a parallel legal system:
“…ISDS lets them apply instead to offshore tribunals operating in secret, without such basic safeguards as judicial review and rights of appeal.”
There’s a long history of nations abusing free trade agreements by using various tricks to give domestic companies an unfair advantage – for instance, by holding-up the paperwork on imported goods. Obviously, in such circumstances, there should be some form of legal redress.
However, the danger is that TTIP would allow corporations to challenge laws that don’t discriminate between domestic and imported goods. The example Monbiot gives is anti-smoking legislation – such as the new rules on plain packaging currently under discussion in this country.
The issue here is not whether these rules are right or wrong, but whether Parliament should have the right to decide. Clearly, legislation of this kind has commercial consequences. But this is called political risk – or democracy – and there’s no reason why foreign companies should have anymore protection against it than domestic companies have.
Monbiot also makes the point that there’s no reason why a legitimate complaint shouldn’t be dealt with by the British courts – after all, we do have a functioning legal system. If serious disagreements still remain, then these should be resolved as part of the normal process of trade diplomacy between national governments.
Why, then, do several EU governments – including our own – support the creation of a transnational system of corporate courts? A satisfactory explanation has yet to be given.
It is good to see Conservative Eurosceptics like Zac Goldsmith asking questions – the EU is enough of a threat to our sovereignty without adding another one. Moreover, there’s a political opportunity to be had here: a chance to build relationships and credibility across the political spectrum – and show that Euroscepticism isn’t about mistrusting foreigners, but the defence of democracy.