TTIP is finally getting the exposure it deserves in the media. The deal offers the prospect of a significant boost to world trade.
The US market is far less open than the EU's because of American provisions like 'Buy America'. TTIP could enable European companies to break into markets like transport where US companies already operate in the EU but the reverse is not the case, i.e. European companies are excluded from the US market. Trade unionists in the US are generally supportive of the agreement, seeing it as a means to increase their domestic labour market standards up. The European Commission (the EU's civil service) has stated clearly that some of the areas where the EU has significantly higher standards than the US, such as the regulation of chemicals, of hormone-treated beef, GMOs and cloning, will not be altered by TTIP.
Nonetheless, many people in Britain and across the EU are still concerned that the deal could lower standards here. Two of the biggest concerns about TTIP are that it could involve an increase in the use of secret trade courts (so-called 'Investor State Dispute Settlement' or ISDS), and that it could threaten the NHS. Labour MEPs have been at the forefront of arguing against this.
First, when it comes to ISDS, Labour MEPs have argued that ISDS is unnecessary within TTIP, given the normal legal channels available. ISDS essentially enables corporations to challenge legislations behind closed doors, as well as potentially threatening governments' abilities to take decisions for the public good, such as on the grounds of promoting working rights or environmental standards. ISDS has been included in some previous investment agreements so that foreign investors had a legal recourse if they felt that the country where they were doing business had failed to follow the terms of that investment agreement- but this is hardly likely to be the case in the EU (or indeed, in the US).
Unfortunately ISDS already exists in some UK trade and investment agreements, and is likely to be within agreements that the EU is concluding with Singapore and Canada. However, with these agreements, TTIP, and all other trade deals, the Socialist and Democrat group (the home of Labour MEPs) has opposed the inclusion of ISDS. This has met with some success, with a report from the parliament that was published in 2011 including a number of provisions from the Socialists and Democrats to enable countries to continue to be free to legislate in order to protect public health, environmental standards and working rights, without fear of being taken to court by corporations for doing so.
A second contentious element of TTIP is whether it might be used to privatise the NHS. Sadly, the Coalition Government's Health and Social Care Act is already leading to root and branch reforms in the NHS; but some fear that TTIP could act as an external pressure for even more privatisation.
Labour MEPs have made clear that they would vote against any EU measures- including TTIP- which would encourage privatisation of the NHS. This, alongside preventing the extension of ISDS, is a 'red line' for Labour. All EU trade agreements include general and specific provisions, which enable governments to keep essential services (like health care) within the public domain, and to prioritise EU-based rather than foreign providers where there is already part-privatisation. EU trade agreements do not prevent the renationalisation of those parts of the NHS which have already been privatised- something I hope will occur with the election of a Labour government in 2015. Nonetheless, if TTIP shifts away from the existing model of health care provision, I will not vote in favour of it.
Some commentators have argued it would be best to try and stop the conclusion of TTIP altogether, but given the prospect of new opportunities for British firms that might come out of the agreement, this appears to be a rather strange position. Nonetheless, TTIP must not be concluded 'at any price'- and certainly not at the price of threatening the NHS or extending the reach of secret courts.