Northern Ireland & TTIP: Is it Deal or No Deal?

While nowhere does acronyms like Brussels, one four-letter word has had everyone talking: TTIP, and now in public conscience like few others before it. For clarification TTIP stands for Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which is basically Brussels-speak for Free Trade treaty between the USA and all 28 EU countries.

Free trade is nothing new to the EU or the European project, it was one of its founding aims after all, and to date it has been one of the few aspects of European policy that the UK has been happy to be fully involved with. Even the most hardened Eurosceptic struggle to find much to object to in lowering of trade barriers. Despite the Cameron government’s “reform” agenda in Brussels it unambiguously backs this latest Brussels project.

Beyond the rhetoric of free-trade and open barriers it is not difficult to see why European capitals from London to Berlin to Athens have lined-up to support the European Commission in its attempts to strike a deal with Washington. Often-referenced government studies  suggest a fully-comprehensive Trade deal with the US could over the long-term be worth up to £10bn (or 0.35 per cent of GDP) annually to the UK, up to £100bn (or 0.5 per cent of GDP) annually to the EU, and up to £80bn (or 0.4 per cent of GDP) annually to the US. For their part the government in Dublin, long a believer in open trade-routes across the Atlantic, continues its strong support for the deal claiming that 8000 jobs and increase by the Republic’s GDP by 1.1%. Germany, whose manufacturing sector remains robustly defiant of crises, is hoping that the deal could open US markets to German cars and high-end manufactured goods.

However not everyone’s eyes are watering so earnestly at the prospect of the deal. Previous attempts at aligning trade barriers between Europe and the US have raised concerns about the watering-down of Europe’s high standards on product and food safety standards among others.  And then there’s the NHS. A lot of any potential impact of the trade deal hinges on another four letter word ISDS (Investor State Dispute Settlement) a commonly-used mechanism which enables companies to take national governments to court if they are seen to renege on previously agreed terms. In practice this could make any future attempts at re-nationalising some parts of the NHS next to impossible.

Given the emotive aspect of the NHS this has been a major source of contention which has caused trade unions, consumer groups and environmental and green groups to try to sink the deal. One leading MEP in the negotiations told me this week that he worried for activists that TTIP represented a ‘perfect storm’ for conspiracy-minded activists: America, Brussels and big-business. Trade unions in Northern Ireland, Great Britain and the republic have joined the call to keep ISDS out of any deal which has often become a rally against the deal altogether.  This widespread activism has even meant “Stop-TTIP” posters appearing at many European campaigns during last year’s elections, breaking the golden rule that European elections are always fought on Non-EU issues.

It remains less clear how much or less Northern Ireland could benefit directly, having a depleted manufacturing sector but few suggest it could have anything other than a positive impact on the local economy. While local industry bodies have backed the deal, many in the agricultural sector are worried about the implications to local farming, in particular livestock, as US meat standards can differ greatly from EU ones. This aspect has put pressure on EU Agriculture Commissioner Ireland’s Phil Hogan, who remains defiantly supportive of any potential deal.

The European Parliament, which under the Lisbon Treaty will have ultimate say on the deal, has been debating  the deal from every aspect for the last eighteen months with thirteen parliamentary of the it’s twenty Committees have given their opinion on TTIP. Of these over half of those have voted to include the ISDS mechanism, supported by the centre-right grouping the EPP (which the Conservatives and Ulster Unionists left six years ago). The powerful International Trade Committee voted on 28 May, adopting what amounted to a fudge on the ISDS issue with the German centre-left being centre-stage, attempting to steer a path between a bad deal and no deal at all.  This was not enough to satisfy some activists who flooded email inboxes throughout Brussels demanding the deal be stopped or amended, with one campaign website claiming almost 2 million signatures in the UK alone.

The whole Parliament was supposed to have its say on the current plan for TTIP during this week’s sessions in Strasbourg but today its postponement was announced, (officially due to an amendment overload) leaving way for a Summer of negotiations ahead. What, if any, free-trade deal Europe’s Parliament signs-off on (or not) remains mired in the fog of Brussels uncertainty, another acronym to run and run.

If this one ever does become reality it can be one of the few international trade deals which can have been said to have owed much to Fermanagh, having been formally announced at the G8 Summit in Lough Erne in Summer 2013. For Northern Ireland’s MEPs the normally pragmatic Jim Nicholson and the more Eurosceptic Diane Dodds have highlighted the need to protect local agriculture. For their part Sinn Fein have fallen-in behind their European Parliamentary group’s opposition to the deal blaming more centrist MEPs for their complicity.

For all the campaign posters, economic projections and long-nights of negotiations the deal itself remains very much ‘a work in progress’, which may not be finished before the next round of European elections in May 2019 and certainly not before the UK votes on whether or not to stay in the EU.

Meanwhile away from Brussels or “Brexit” time may be running-out. While president Obama’s administration is keen to reach such a deal his time in the White House is limited. Washington wants to first sign-off on an already-delayed trade deal with the Pacific region and with an election looming next Autumn it’s far from clear whether or not the next American government will quite as interested. At this week’s G7 meeting Cameron, Merkel et al said they were pushing hard for a deal by the end of this year. These negotiations, which began by the side of Lough Erne, have a long way to go before they can set sail on the Atlantic.

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