Is the TPP Dead? And if so, what next?

Several press reports are confirming the Obama administration’s intention to suspend any attempts to pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership in the upcoming lame-duck session of Congress.  Until recently, it appeared as if the administration would seek to enact the measure before the end of this Congressional term.

While press coverage has been varied, one recurring theme has been to liken TPP opponents to the pro-Brexit forces as well as to others espousing isolationist or nativist views. While the point has been continuously made by progressive TPP opponents that the measure has fundamental flaws (including increasing the price of medicines, threatening environmental protection regulations, and empowering corporations to utilize an arbitration system designed to frustrate if not outright chill legitimate decision-making) these concerns are often over-shadowed by reference to the opposition coming from the right.

It was very refreshing then to read the recent article in The Hill  that referenced Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who said “a strong coalition of members of Congress and labor, environmental, faith and human rights organizations and activists worked diligently to stop this agreement.” She was also quote as saying,” We will move forward with pushing new rules of the road for future trade agreements, rules that respect organized labor and human rights, protect the environment, ensure food safety, fight currency manipulation and create jobs and grow wages.”

The article, written by Vicki Needham also quoted Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune who said, “Our fight against the TPP is rooted in respect for worker’s rights around the world, a commitment to climate justice and a dedication to a new model of trade based on our shared values.” Brune was careful to distinguish the motivations of the TPP opponents on the right saying “Sadly, Trump’s opposition to the TPP rejects those values, is rooted in the same xenophobia that dominated his campaign, and is bolstered by no real vision for what comes next.”

No doubt the question of what comes next will be getting a lot of attention in the aftermath of the rejection of the TPP.  DeLauro and Brune’s comments help provide some basic guidelines for the future of trade negotiations.

While this discussion will be a long one, and will take different forms in different countries, I think the basic elements of a progressive framework for future trade negotiations should include:

  1. Ensure more transparency. A fundamental flaw of the entire TPP process was its secrecy. The  assumption is often made that these negotiations must be in secret, but this view is flawed. The democratic  process is characterized by the tabling of documents which are publicly accessible together with the ability of all stakeholders to provide continuous feedback through the various  stages of the process. This is the model that is used in the typical legislative process and in bodies like the UN and WIPO. Yes, there is always a danger of preferential access for lobbyists. But such special privilege can be at least somewhat limited through greater transparency and accessibility.
  2. Avoid impinging on policy areas best left to individual sovereign states.  The TPP, like many other contemporary “trade” measures, goes well beyond trade matters, and intrudes into the legitimate policy space that democratic states need to have. For example, issues like extending  copyright and patent terms is more a reflection of the desires of special interest groups (here the entertainment and pharmaceutical industries) than a legitimate trade issue. We already have international intellectual property standards contained within the WTO-TRIPS and WIPO frameworks. Simply layering on additional requirements under the guise of a trade agreement is policy laundering pure and simple.  (I use intellectual property as an example here, but there are many others  including environmental protection, health and safety, and local procurement measures).
  3. Reject direct investor initiated dispute mechanisms. Without question one of the most controversial aspects of the TPP was its Investor-State Dispute Settlement provisions. ISDS (and similar provisions going under other names) are inherently anti-democratic, they give too much weight to the needs to international corporations, and they threaten a regulatory chill. There are other means to settle disputes such as the state-to-state model employed by the WTO.

If the United States is indeed about to invoke  isolationist and nativist positions with respect to international trade,  there is nothing stopping other countries from continuing their own individual efforts.  Canada for its part has some new opportunities opening up for a progressive trade policy that does not distort the democratic policy-making process. Rather than bemoan the death of the TPP and attempt to blame its opponents for standing in the way of progress, lets apply these (and other) principles towards what Brune calls “a new model of trade based on our shared values.”