The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a massive package of proposed new economic rules for the Asia-Pacific region (including the US), heavily influenced by corporate priorities through the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) and under negotiation right now. You might not have heard of it, but if it’s eventually signed, its secret texts will affect your life.
At the TPP negotiations’ official stakeholder briefing May 13th outside Dallas, USTR announced that the nine TPP country Chief negotiators together had just awarded a prize to the first negotiators to finalize their chapter: rules on small and medium enterprises (SMEs).
Meanwhile, negotiators of chapters that are taking time for review and input are now getting a little punishment. For example, intellectual property negotiators who have been appropriately scrutinizing proposals that would transform their countries’ laws regarding generic medicines, internet freedom and much more, have reportedly been dragged before the assembled Chiefs more than once to face pointed questions about what’s taking so long. USTR is driving this new tactic, which even the US Chief Negotiator described as a more “heavy-handed approach.”
Apparently USTR thinks this is a good thing. But it comes at the expense of the “high-quality” agreement the parties expressly seek. Ordinarily the sort of proposals under discussion would be subject to serious debate in national legislatures; open to public comment and academic study. In the TPP, of course, they are secret. Debate and external review are very limited. USTR representatives have been visiting TPP countries of late, bearing carrot and stick. Non-US negotiators are under increasing pressure from USTR to fold to big business demands and achieve agreement fast, before public understanding spreads about the dangers posed by some of USTR’s proposals. But the secrecy and rush necessarily yields a less informed decision making process.
USTR may also be abusing its power to moderate negotiations. When a country that first proposed text later pulls its support for that provision – which could be due to a deal cut on the side or any other reason – USTR reportedly, in some areas, has been insisting that the provision itself die, regardless of whether other countries have subsequently supported it. This disadvantages countries which may not have comparable resources to quickly design their own proposals, and have to make difficult political decisions about when and how often they can afford to stand up to USTR – especially if they stand openly or alone.
At the stakeholder briefing, USTR reiterated its commitment to keeping the TPP text secret. Interestingly, USTR defended secrecy by reference to the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), a similarly controversial set of proposals which – even according to USTR – failed once the text became public. USTR seems to recognize that if its proposals were open to public scrutiny, opposition could become insurmountable. And if even USTR is concerned that its proposed rules for the hemisphere’s economy would not survive the light of day, then all of us have reason to worry.