Trans-Pacific Partnership Steams Ahead

Photo: Ben Powless

Earlier I wrote about what the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is and why it should be on your radar. After that I gave an update when some aspects of the TPP already in NAFTA were exercised with U.S. drug giant Eli Lilly announcing they would sue Canada for half a billion dollars (Eli Lilly and the Government of Canada have agreed to send the matter to arbitration under a NAFTA tribunal, but Eli Lilly is now whining to Washington that Canada exercises entirely too much control over its own patent law ), and again when Wikileaks released the entire Environmental section of the agreement under negotiation.

The full text of the wide-ranging TPP still remains a mystery, even to the countries who are negotiating it. Only one section is negotiated at a time, and only those involved in negotiating that section see that section. The agreement seeks to address everything from internet access to intellectual property rights, from agriculture to the freedom of speech, the tech industry to the energy industry, environmental protections to privacy invasion, and well, basically everything. The TPP is estimated to control about 40% of the world’s economy.

Even with the secrecy, negotiations remain on the fast-track. There have been almost monthly meetings and summits of either the ministers of the countries involved, or the negotiators, or the industry lobbyists, taking place in all of the negotiating countries, amid increasing protests. The 20th ultra-secret negotiating session has been held, this time in Canada. Originally slated to take place in Vancouver – a place prolific for its protests, pot and hippies – the talks were moved to Ottawa. The organizers said that the change of venue wasn’t to avoid protests (good thing, because there were protests in Ottawa, too), but to save money. In the big picture of the TPP, I really don’t think that the big quibble will be whether or not the negotiators took advantage of the Delta Hotel’s complimentary “continental breakfast”.

Despite fast-track approach and frequent negotiating sessions, there doesn’t appear to be an end in sight for the agreement. Even though President Obama originally set 2011 as a target date for the completion of the agreement, the most optimistic of predictions puts a completion date of late 2015 for any agreement.

One thing that we know has changed is the TPP extension on patent protections on pharmaceutical drugs. At the Chief Negotiators Summit in Salt Lake City, Utah, in November of 2013, the United States Trade Representative (USTR) proposed beefed-up patent protections and restriction or elimination of certain patent limitations in the Intellectual Property Rights Chapter, endangering access to medicines for all. A consortium of concerned groups published a news release that warns about the specific dangers and further restrictions of the USTR proposal. It should be noted that half of the world’s pharmaceutical giants are US-based companies.

The existing patent protections serve to delay and restrict the release of less expensive generic versions of “brand name” drugs. Reasonable patent protections are a good thing, because it allows the companies who develop effective drugs a means to recoup their often-astronomical R&D costs before opening the market to all players. The flipside of that coin is patent limitations that make it possible for generic versions of those same drugs to be available for millions of people in developing countries to receive effective medical treatment. Generic drugs allow Medecins Sans Frontiers to do what they do. The simplest evidence for the reasonableness of current patent protections is the fact that pharmaceutical companies are international giants who are becoming incredibly wealthy. The 11 largest ones made a combined $711 billion in profit in the decade from 2003-2012.

Another change is in the negotiating partners. Japan, who had previously expressed interest as a negotiating partner, has now signed on as a negotiating partner. The 11 TPP countries are now officially 12. Now, China and South Korea have officially expressed interest late last year, bringing the potential partners to a total of 14. More countries are starting to sniff around the TPP as well, including Taiwan, the Philippines, Laos, Colombia, Indonesia, Cambodia, Bangladesh, India, Thailand. These late-comers will have limited input into the process, if any, as the existing members will be pushing to finalize the agreement.

Japan’s new involvement has opened up controversy around auto tariffs. The TPP, like NAFTA did, seeks to seeks to eliminate trade tariffs. Japan has said that they are willing to continue the American tariffs on their automobiles in exchange for maintaining tariffs on agricultural products.

In the New York Times in February of 2014, Economist Paul Krugman points out that not only is the TPP attempting to solve a problem that doesn’t exist, but it lacks popular support in every country involved in the negotiations, it’s not clear that it’s a good idea, and he’d be just as happy if it simply vanished.

Just a few days ago, The Atlantic Council has surfaced with a report backing the TPP, but the Council and its report have already met with much suspicion and criticism.

Recently, Brunei, the first signatory of the trade agreement that spawned the TPP in 2004, adopted harsh new Sharia Laws, raising speculation of the possibility of elements of Sharia Law being enshrined in the TPP.

Europe, specifically Germany, is rejecting the concept of Investor-State Dispute Settlement (the ability of multinational companies to sue nation states) as a “failed 20th century approach”.

There is much about the negotiations that hasn’t changed. The government representatives still rely heavily on the input of over 600 corporate lobbyists to craft the agreement, including critical sections where corproate involvement should probably be limited, such as the section on Environmental Protection.

Transparency is still zero, and secrecy is still utlra-top-secret.

And, of course, the TPP will still be allowed to override local laws – like in the example of Canada’s patent laws, or any country’s environmental protections – where those laws would prevent or impede a corporation from making a profit.

The TPP continues to benefit the wealthiest, at the expense of workers in the manufacturing and service sectors. In its simplest statement, the TPP is little more than a corporate power grab.

Again, we need Fair Trade, not Free Trade.

More reading:

The CBC has a great boiler-plate on the TPP and its history.

Groups protesting the TPP:

The Electronic Frontier:
Stop the TPP:
Popular Resistance:
Flush the TPP:
Our Fair Deal: (petition and information):
Public Citizen:
Open the TPP!:
Public Knowledge:
It’s Our Future (NZ):

Other sites you may want to see:

Public Knowledge’s site on the TPP:

The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s video on the TPP:

Knowledge Ecology International’s list of leaked documents on TPP:

The US Government’s official site on the TPP:

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