Few observers believe we’ll see much serious progress on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) until after Obama’s presidency, whatever the U.S. House of Representatives decides between now and the end of July about speeding up approval.
One reason Congress is struggling to agree on a process for approving the TPP (and the EU-U.S. Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, TTIP, and the 50-country Trade in Services Agreement, or TiSA), is that more Americans think they’ve suffered from trade liberalization over the past two decades than those who think they’ve done well.
But I believe there’s another reason progress is now threatened. Throughout the dozens of democracies negotiating these deals there’s a widespread belief that the level of secrecy in their negotiations proves something nasty’s being cooked up.
Why the secrecy?
The countries discussing these three deals have agreed their talks should stay secret till negotiators have an agreement they can present to their legislatures for approval. Then, the deal will be published and Congressmen and MPs can vote.
This secrecy has many upset.
On June 2, Julian Assange of Wikileaks appealed by crowdsourcing a $100,000 reward for anyone leaking a full TPP text. Just more than two weeks later, just $68,000 has been “promised” (not actually donated) – a far cry from the $340,000 Assange’s supporters offered as bail overnight in 2010 when Swedish authorities charged him with sexual abuse.
But many voters around the world are deeply suspicious about what lies behind that secrecy. Some details leaking out make it clear why.
What’s being kept secret?
In typical trade negotiations affecting clothing and textiles, country A might say it’ll cut import duty on country B’s garments from 30 percent to 10 percent as long as country B cuts import duty on country A’s cars. Then they start haggling.
Few Sourcing Journal readers or contributors will worry about keeping the haggling confidential till the two parties have an agreement that legislatures can then accept or reject. Recent leaks aren’t about details like that though.
In early June, leaks showed the secrecy was covering up details likely to cause considerable unease among politicians and voters throughout all the 40+ countries:
- The TPP will severely limit government healthcare agencies’ ability to negotiate pharmaceutical prices down. This is likely to create fury in countries (like New Zealand or Chile) where governments have well-developed programs for cutting healthcare costs.
- The TiSA contains provisions for harmonizing immigration procedures, so, for example, businesses in 38 industries will be able to require decisions on work permits for citizens of other TiSA signatories (from Australia to Pakistan) within 30 days. And it appears at one point to insist on secrecy until “five years from entry into force of the TiSA agreement.” Some U.S. lobbyists see that as “usurping America’s authority to make immigration policy.” In the U.K., foreign influence on immigration policy is the reason there’s a high chance the country will leave the EU – and autonomy on immigration is just as hot in Australia.
- The TPP, the leaks reveal, will have a central secretariat. Already, one U.S. Senator has described this as “foreign bureaucrats…impacting Americans’ jobs, wages and sovereignty.”
These details may be harmless. All multinational organizations, for example, from the United Nations to the Boy Scouts, need a central secretariat – the important issue is how to make it accountable to its members. The leaks may exaggerate problems as they are just terse summaries of different negotiators’ proposals, not an explanation of what’s going to happen.
But as long as there are threats of criminal action for publishing the leaks, lots of people are going to put the worst possible complexion on anything that’s being kept from them.
It’s not the normal “You want a 10 percent cut, but 5 percent is my last offer” commercial confidentiality the TPP/TTIP/TiSA secrecy is protecting. It’s mostly hiding possibly necessary, but certainly controversial, administrative arrangements till there’s an easier time to release them. It probably isn’t hiding nasty conspiracies – but it makes it a lot easier to believe any allegations that it is.
So what should happen next?
The secrecy has encouraged suspicions that have poisoned public debate about these three proposed deals throughout the democracies they’re intended to bring closer together. I don’t think we’ll get to a final agreement to take to any of the 40 legislatures in the TPP and TTIP countries for years now. Meanwhile, in every sphere of activity, these 40 countries are going to deal with each other more and more, whatever their governments do or don’t sign.
The whole process has to start again, with three key principles:
- Industries that think trade deals benefit them must publish their proposals, and the reasons they are in voters’ interests. America’s garment industry – unlike its pharmaceutical firms – has been open in their TPP case: but no lobbyists have convincingly explained what’s in the deals for voters in the U.S., or anywhere else.
- All documents governments present in negotiations must be published. They’ll get leaked anyway, so they may as well be out in the open from the start.
- The 40 are simply trying to do too much. They’ll be trading with each other for the rest of time – they should accept they’ll be negotiating their relationships with each other for just as long.
Follow these principles and progress toward more open trade will soon restart.
Insist on secrecy, though – even if it’s been essential to diplomacy for hundreds of years – and any 10-year-old will tell you that in the Internet age, marking something “secret” practically guarantees it’ll be on Facebook within minutes.
Unless our governments and firms lobbying for free trade realize that kids are right, we’ll still be arguing about spurious conspiracies for the next hundred years.
Mike Flanagan, CEO Clothesource. Clothesource offers consultancy on the world garment industry using the wide resources of The Clothesource Knowledge Base – the most comprehensive collection of information anywhere about sourcing for the apparel industry. He can be contacted at Flanagan@clothesource.net.