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TPP Secrecy in Salt Lake City: Public locked out of trade talks for first time

Fair trade activists gathered in Salt Lake City, Utah this week for what some are calling the most secretive round of Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations yet. The Salt Lake Tribunal reports more than 100 people rallied outside the Grand America Hotel on Tuesday. They included members of the Citizens Trade Campaign, Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, Backbone Campaign (pictured above), Sierra Club, local labour leaders with AFL-CIO and United Steelworkers, and a former SLC mayor, Rocky Anderson.

Arthur Stamoulis of Citizens Trade Campaign (pictured below) told the crowd, “Although TPP negotiations have long been been shrouded in secrecy since it began four years ago, the latest round of talks in Salt Lake City is the first which does not present any formal opportunity to the public and civil society to present their views.” He said the only thing that wasn’t a secret was who the TPP would benefit – big multinational companies. 

Canada joined the 12-country TPP negotiations about a year ago after corporate lobby groups said they didn’t want to be left out of any new global supply chains created as a result. It certainly wasn’t because of the economic promise of the deal, which is almost insignificant for Canada, and most TPP countries for that matter.

As with past free trade agreements, the TPP would help multinational companies locate production across low-cost regions, with as few burdensome (to them) regulations, and as little competition from state-owned companies, as possible, and then import finished products, tariff-free, back into rich consumer countries. Get in the way of corporate plans, try to capture a bigger share of profits to put towards social priorities or programs, and face costly investor-to-state lawsuits under the TPP’s planned investment protection chapter.

This is about corporate power and profits, not sustainable trade or jobs.

The Council of Canadians is entirely opposed to the TPP and parallel negotiations between Canada and the EU (CETA) and the U.S. and EU (TTIP or TAFTA, which Canada and Mexico will be eventually dragged into). Though we couldn’t be in Salt Lake City this week, we helped members of the Backbone Campaign get to Utah where they are organizing week-long helium-assisted banner lifts, “Overpass Light Brigades,” guerilla light projections on buildings and more, all to draw attention to what they are calling a “secret corporate coup.” At 9 a.m. Wednesday morning, anti-TPP activists will do a casserole march and noise procession through town.

The TPP negotiations are facing growing opposition in the United States where it is uncertain whether Congress will give President Obama the “fast-track” trade negotiating authority he wants so his administration can bypass legislative debate on the deal. The leak last week of a recent draft of the TPP intellectual property rights chapter has also re-focused attention on the ways the deal will undermine access to essential medicines and enhance the profits of Hollywood and other big copyright holders by further squeezing Internet users.

Both patent extension and copyright enforcement are good examples of how the TPP is about corporate protectionism vs honest competition.

“The leak confirms our worst fears—the US is continuing its attempts to impose an unprecedented package of new trade rules that would keep affordable generic medicines out of the hands of millions of people,” says Judit Rius Sanjuan, US manager of MSF’s Access Campaign. “The good news is that the leak also reveals that the majority of countries negotiating this trade deal object to some or all of the most harmful provisions affecting access to medicines. The US cannot possibly expect countries to cave in to rules that will endanger the health of their citizens.”

Michael Geist, an Internet law expert at the University of Ottawa, also commented on the pushback against U.S. positions:

From a Canadian perspective, there is good news and bad news. The good news is that Canada is pushing back against many U.S. demands by promoting provisions that are consistent with current Canadian law. Canada is often joined by New Zealand, Malaysia, Mexico, Chile, Vietnam, Peru, and Brunei Darussalam. Japan and Singapore are part of this same group on many issues. Interestingly, Canada has also promoted Canadian-specific solutions on many issues. The bad news is that the U.S.—often joined by Australia—is demanding that Canada rollback its recent copyright reform legislation with a long list of draconian proposals.

The Obama administration had set end-of-2013 as a deadline for finishing the TPP negotiations but that is looking increasingly unlikely. The IPR chapter leak shows big divisions between blocks of countries and the U.S., which a fascinating study printed in the Washington Post suggests might exist in other chapters as well. A shrinking window into the negotiations (e.g. no civic participation this week in Utah) makes it difficult to know for sure. 

In any event, Inside US Trade reported November 15 that if and when they do complete the TPP negotiations (a big “if”), the International Trade Commission (ITC) in the United States will need at least five months to assess the impact, pushing congressional debate on the deal into the second half of 2014 at the earliest.

Strangely enough, the TPP’s most aggressive negotiator might be its weakest link. With 2014 being the 20th anniversary of TPP-template NAFTA, North American fair trade, labour and environmental activists will have the wind behind their backs as they challenge corporate rights deals in all their current forms.