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It is good news that we are discussing the TTIP which, as far as I am aware, is the most ambitious free trade agreement ever attempted. On these complex agreements, national legislators, in their worthy pursuit of job creation, growth and trade, do not always pay attention to the finer details.
Some years ago when I interviewed Ralph Nader, the consumer activist and occasional presidential candidate, about the North American Free Trade Agreement, he told me that even though Congress was set overwhelmingly to back the treaty, he was convinced from his discussions with members that few of them, if any, had bothered even to read the text. He eventually offered a substantial prize to any member who was willing publicly to answer 12 simple questions about NAFTA. Following a long pause, a strongly NAFTA-supporting Republican, Senator Hank Brown of Colorado, accepted the challenge and reserved the Senate Foreign Relations Committee room for the ordeal. The cameras and journalists were there and, to everyone’s amazement, he answered each of the 12 questions correctly, but when he had finished, he turned away from Ralph Nader to the cameras and said that having read the treaty, which he had not previously done, he realised just how awful it was, so he chose to do a U-turn and to vote against it.
At this stage, we do not have a huge amount to go on regarding the TTIP but, whatever one thinks about it, it clearly has serious implications and it merits close scrutiny. On the whole, free trade agreements are about lowering barriers to trade—that is their purpose—but, compared with the situation in other countries, there are relatively few barriers to trade between the EU and the US, so the main focus must be standards and regulations, with the goal of trying to harmonise them. However, it is hard to imagine that the process will involve any key standards going up; on the contrary, I suspect that we will see a spiral downwards. We only have to read several of the publications put forward by some of the most substantial big business lobby groups to see that they are openly talking about removing under the TTIP whole rafts of standards and regulations that businesses believe hinder their activities. One does not have to believe in a conspiracy theory; one just needs to read the communications of some of the companies that are playing an active role in the process.
We are already seeing an emphasis on lobbying with regard to food, about which several hon. Members have spoken, and it is difficult to imagine the harmonisation of food standards working in our interest. Europe believes that providing clear labelling for genetically modified food is a consumer right, but such practice is absolutely opposed by the vast majority of states in the US.