How Multilateral Free Trade Agreements Are Bypassing Democratic Decision-Making Around The World
from the behind-closed-doors dept
One of the most worrying aspects of ACTA — which began life as a “simple” treaty about combatting counterfeit goods — was how it morphed into a new approach to global policy making. This had two key aspects. First, the treaty would be negotiated in secret, with minimal input from the public, but plenty from lobbyists, who were given access to key documents and to negotiators. Secondly, the results of those secret negotiations were designed to constrain the participating governments in important ways that nullified ordinary democratic decision-making. If at all, representative bodies were presented with a take-it-or-leave it choice; changing individual details was not an option.
That, in its turn, meant that public in those countries had very little chance to fight harmful provisions in a treaty, since the only way to do that was to persuade their government to reject it completely, which was extremely difficult after the years of negotiation. The European Parliament’s dramatic refusal to agree to ACTA was largely because of the unusual division of power in the European Union.
TPP has adopted exactly the same process: negotiations behind closed doors, but this time, without even the occasional official release of drafts as happened with ACTA (luckily, there have been leaks.) And assuming the negotiations are concluded successfully, it is likely that national legislatures will be presented with the same take-it-or-leave-it offer, with huge pressure to accept.
More recently, the newly-announced transatlantic free trade agreement (TAFTA) between the US and the EU is gaining momentum, not least in terms of the countries that may ask to join. At the last count, these included Mexico, Canada and Turkey. The US has also started talking to West African states about a free trade agreement, and it’s easy to see that being rolled into TAFTA at some point.
TPP is also expanding rapidly. Mexico and Canada have already joined, under pretty humiliating terms, while Japan has signalled that it wishes to do so. Recently we learned that South Korea and Taiwan are considering applying.
As we’ve noted before, putting together TPP and TAFTA, it’s striking how they include all of the world’s biggest economies outside the so-called BRICS group of emerging countries — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. The natural response to being locked out of the two US-centric trade areas would be to form their own, and in fact India has begun talks with the Customs Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan about a free trade agreement. Significantly, enlarging that to including other nearby countries is already being mooted:
Kazakhstan’s neighbour Kyrgyzstan is likely to be the fourth entrant and Tajikistan could over time be the fifth country to joint the Customs Union. Ukraine, Armenia and Moldovia would also be moving close to the Customs Union but for some time they are likely to be the first three countries outside the core.
“China’s intention is to first form a Northeast Asian economic cooperation that excludes the U.S. while Japan can’t sit still as South Korea advances to the Chinese market with Korea-China free trade talks,” said Heo Yoon, a professor at Sogang University Graduate School of International Studies.
It’s easy to imagine other countries that are part of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Free Trade Area joining the group if and when formal negotiations get underway, not least because ASEAN already has free trade agreements with China, Japan and South Korea.
Although bilateral trade agreements are hardly new — Wikipedia lists dozens of them, some going back to the 1980s — there has definitely been a step-change recently. Increasingly, the emphasis is on joining multilateral free trade agreements like TPP and TAFTA, involving significant numbers of countries. On the part of smaller nations, their interest is probably driven by a fear of getting shut out of key markets. But for the bigger players — notably the US and EU — it’s a convenient way of imposing unpalatable policies not just on the citizens of other countries, but on their own, too.