Why TAFTA Matters, and What We Should Do About It

Back in January, I wrote about what I called the "Trans-Atlantic Partnership Agreement", by analogy with the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, TPP, whose negotiations have already dragged on for several years. The formal announcement of what...

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Back in January, I wrote about what I called the "Trans-Atlantic Partnership Agreement", by analogy with the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, TPP, whose negotiations have already dragged on for several years. The formal announcement of what is now variously called the Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA) or Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), took place just over a month ago, but already Mexico has stated that it wishes to join, and there are rumours Canada might tag along too.

This would then turn the EU-US agreement into a EU-NAFTA agreement – that is between the EU and the whole North American Free Trade Agreement area. If that happens, it's quite possible that South American countries will start trying to join too, for fear of being "left out" (although they might do better to consider whether being in is actually better for them, given their limited ability to influence the negotiations between the two main partners.)

That's hugely significant when taken in conjunction with the TPP negotiations, which aim to craft a major trade agreement for the Pacific rim: TAFTA would do the same for the Atlantic. Indeed, putting the two together, it would include all the major economies except for China, India and maybe Russia and Brazil (depending on whether they tried to join too.)

That's clearly part of Obama's larger plan: to create two massive trade associations, both firmly anchored in the US as the main player that is common to both, which effectively lock out the two economies that are best-placed to challenge the leading position of the US – China and India. In other words, Obama and his advisers will see both TAFTA and TPP as a way of imposing the US way of doing business on most of the world.

Leaving aside any issues to do with the US continuing to tell everyone else what to do, there are some specific problems here. For example, as far as things like health, environmental and privacy standards are concerned, there is a deep divide between the laissez-faire attitude of the US, and more precautionary approach in the EU. These are fundamentally irreconcilable, which means there are only three options: there is no agreement here (and maybe anywhere); the US agrees to accept EU standards (probably impossible); the EU accepts US approaches (all-too possible given the supine leaders of the EU who are desperate for a magic treaty to revive the flagging economy here.)

And that's not all. As we saw with ACTA, the US is very keen to export its intellectual monopolies around the world. That means longer copyright terms, broader patents (including software and gene patents) and much harsher enforcement.

The EU Commissioner leading the EU delegation is Karel de Gucht, who also sprear-headed the ACTA negotiations. Given the bruising he received over this last year, culminating in the humiliating rejection of ACTA by the European Parliament, he has helpfully stated that he has no intention of going through that experience again by trying to introduce ACTA by the backdoor in TAFTA. Nonetheless, the US side have made it clear that it intends to demand action on precisely these fronts: as with genetically-modified foods and the use of things like hormones in beef, this is likely to be one of the key battlegrounds during the TAFTA negotiations.

Given the problems that were encountered with intellectual monopolies during the ACTA negotiations – indeed, most of the problems were in this area – a diverse collection of civil groups have come up with a declaration pre-emptively asking for them to be kept out of TAFTA/TTIP (disclosure: I was involved in the drafting of this document.)

There's also a hugely important secondary issue: asking for greater transparency than was allowed during the negotiations for ACTA or TPP. The usual response to this is that it would clearly be irresponsible to release secret negotiating documents that would undermine the position of the teams involved in the discussions, and that's arguably true.

However, many documents are "tabled" during those discussions, and once they are, they are no longer secret to any of the participants. There is therefore no reason whatsoever not to release such tabled documents immediately. Indeed, not doing so can only be interpreted as a conscious slap in the face of the public in whose name these negotiations are being conducted.

The declaration can be found below, and is also available online, and as a PDF. If you agree with it, writing about it or simply passing it on would be a great way to boost its visibility and hence, one hopes, its force. And rest assured: the TAFTA/TTIP talks will be one of the most problematic things happening in the online world for the next year or two – unless we can get the intellectual monopolies that proved so dangerous in ACTA removed completely from the start.

Last year, millions of Americans told their government not to undermine the open internet. We sent the SOPA and PIPA bills down to defeat.

Soon after, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of Europe to protest against ACTA, a secretive trade agreement that would have violated our rights online and chilled generic drug competition.

Meanwhile, leaked trade texts revealed US and EU threats to access to affordable medicines, which significantly disrupted trade talks in India and the Pacific.

On February 13, the US President Barack Obama, the European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, and the European Commission President José Manuel Barroso announced the official launch of negotiations of a Transatlantic Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA)—also touted as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP.

We, the undersigned, are internet freedom and public health groups, activists, and other public interest leaders dedicated to the rights of all people to access cultural and educational resources and affordable medicines, to enjoy a free and open internet, and to benefit from open and needs-driven innovation.

First, we insist that the European Union and United States release, in timely and ongoing fashion, any and all negotiating or pre-negotiation texts. We believe that secretive "trade" negotiations are absolutely unacceptable forums for devising binding rules that change national non-trade laws.

Second, we insist that the proposed TAFTA exclude any provisions related to patents, copyright, trademarks, data protection, geographical indications, or other forms of so-called "intellectual property". Such provisions could impede our rights to health, culture, and free expression and otherwise affect our daily lives.

Past trade agreements negotiated by the US and EU have significantly increased the privileges of multinational corporations at the expense of society in general. Provisions in these agreements can, among many other concerns, limit free speech, constrain access to educational materials such as textbooks and academic journals, and, in the case of medicines, raise healthcare costs and contribute to preventable suffering and death.

Unless "intellectual property" is excluded from these talks, we fear that the outcome will be an agreement that inflicts the worst of both regimes' rules on the other party. From a democratic perspective, we believe that important rules governing technology, health, and culture should be debated in the US Congress, the European Parliament, national parliaments, and other transparent forums where all stakeholders can be heard—not in closed negotiations that give privileged access to corporate insiders.

The TAFTA negotiations must not lead to a rewriting of patent and copyright rules in a way that tilts the balance even further away from the interests of citizens.

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