from the who's-afraid-of-a-little-rebranding? dept
Back in May, we wrote about the European Commission's sharing "concerns" about corporate sovereignty chapters in trade agreements. The Commissioner responsible for trade, Cecilia Malmström, even went so far as to say that the present investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) system was "not fit for purpose in the 21st century." But rather than removing something that is unnecessary between two economic blocs with highly-developed and fair legal systems, she instead proposed to "reform" it, and to start working towards an international investment court.
That idea was dismissed almost immediately by the US Undersecretary for International Trade at the Commerce Department, Stefan Selig. Despite that, the EU seems set on replacing today's corporate sovereignty with some kind of court. In a non-binding but important set of recommendations to the European Commission regarding TTIP, the European Parliament called for the following:
to ensure that foreign investors are treated in a non-discriminatory fashion, while benefiting from no greater rights than domestic investors, and to replace the ISDS system with a new system for resolving disputes between investors and states which is subject to democratic principles and scrutiny, where potential cases are treated in a transparent manner by publicly appointed, independent professional judges in public hearings and which includes an appellate mechanism, where consistency of judicial decisions is ensured, the jurisdiction of courts of the EU and of the Member States is respected, and where private interests cannot undermine public policy objectives;
The wording is extremely vague, and leaves plenty of room for a kind of ISDS-Lite to be agreed between the EU and US in TAFA/TTIP. Many in Europe regard the proposal as little more than a face-saving compromise that allows the opponents of ISDS to claim that "this is the end of ISDS in trade deals," while allowing supporters to maintain that it has merely been re-branded, rather than removed.
We don't know what the US government thinks of the idea, but we do have a fascinating post on the proposal from The Heritage Foundation, which describes its mission as "to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense." Its views on the EU's corporate sovereignty reforms are quite clear:
The EU's proposal, backed by a vote of the European Parliament on July 8 -- that the TTIP should establish a permanent investment court, not an ISDS mechanism -- is a bad solution in search of a non-existent problem. ISDS mechanisms work well to secure basic legal protections for a signatory state's nationals abroad. The U.S. should firmly reject the EU's proposal and insist that TTIP establish an ISDS.
The rest of the post provides rare insights into the thinking of the pro-ISDS, pro-big business camp in the US. Bizarrely, it describes corporate sovereignty tribunals as:
designed to safeguard fair, unbiased, and transparent legal processes by providing independent and impartial arbitration.
That's an odd description of processes that take place in secret, with no case law to guide decisions, no limits to damages, no right to appeal, and where the tribunal members are corporate lawyers who can also act for the same companies that appear before them in other cases, because there are no rules governing conflicts of interest. But more interesting than this topsy-turvy view of reality is the following revealing comment:
because any case inside the EU can ultimately reach the European Court of Justice (ECJ), and the ECJ is mandated to make decisions that promote deeper European integration, it is not clear how the U.S. can rely on the ECJ to rule fairly when the EU seeks to promote integration in ways that discriminate against the U.S.
Essentially, then, The Heritage Foundation objects to Europe's highest court doing its job of strengthening the European Union, and wants supranational corporate sovereignty tribunals as an option to overrule its judgements -- confirming critics' worst fears about ISDS undermining democracy. The post then goes on to list a number of problems that the Foundation sees with the EU's proposed international investment court, many of which again display a curious inversion of reality. For example:
[an investment court] would have limited accountability and few checks and balances.
That is precisely the situation with corporate sovereignty tribunals, which have no checks or balances, and no limits to their power, as clearly shown by the $50 billion award made against the Russian government last year.
The post concludes:
The EU is advancing this proposal in a futile and wrong-headed effort to win over critics who are fundamentally skeptical about freer trade. These critics had not previously raised any objections to the many ISDS mechanisms to which EU nations are already party: They began to complain only when the U.S. became involved.
That's true, because previous trade agreements incorporated ISDS as a mechanism for rich Western countries -- including those in the EU -- to use to sue poor, developing countries. Since the latter had few, if any, investments in the Western countries, there was little or no risk that they would use corporate sovereignty against the richer nations. TAFTA/TTIP changes that situation dramatically. Both the US and EU have huge investments in each other: the European Commission estimates them as more than $1.75 trillion dollars in both directions -- a clear demonstration ISDS is not needed in order to encourage investors. If there is a corporate sovereignty chapter in TTIP, tens of thousands of companies on both sides of the Atlantic will gain the power to sue governments over policies they claim could impact their future profits adversely.
That is why critics have raised the issue now, and partly why the EU has proposed moving away from such a manifestly flawed approach. Given that it believes in "a strong national defense," it's curious that The Heritage Foundation is desperate to preserve a system that gives foreign investors such a powerful weapon to use against America.