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Take trade agreement off fast track

TPP protesters gathered, from left, in Malaysia in October, Washington, D.C., in September, and by the thousands in Tokyo earlier this month.reuters/Getty images

Recently I went over to Radcliffe to hear House minority leader Nancy Pelosi commemorate the first White House report on the status of women. Outside the hall a handful of student activists held up a large banner reading “Stop the TPP.” I puzzled: What is TPP? Something . . . Pelosi Pact? Third Party Platform? Terrapin Poaching Project?

When Pelosi took questions, a few audience members stood up, holding more signs. Would Pelosi commit to voting against the TPP? The former House speaker said she had concerns about TPP but avoided making promises. OK, but what is the TPP? And why hadn’t I heard anything about it?

Turns out the TPP is the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a massive trade agreement among the United States, Canada, Mexico, and nine other countries mostly in Asia, representing 40 percent of the world economy. Negotiations have been going on for years but are reaching the final stages, and opponents have grown increasingly vocal about the dark powers the agreement would grant to corporations and the damage it could do to global health, environmental, and labor protections. It’s been called “NAFTA on steroids,” a “corporate coup d’etat,” and worse.


Like most trade agreements, the pact’s ostensible purpose is to lower trade barriers among countries, thereby stimulating economies and creating jobs. But the TPP also covers a broad range of legal and regulatory issues which make it more sweeping than the typical agreement, and much more worrisome.

It doesn’t help that the negotiations have been conducted almost completely in secret, or that the Obama administration wants so-called “fast track authority” for the pact’s approval, which allows the president to present the completed agreement to Congress for an up-or-down vote, without input from the members. This could come as early as January. In a floor speech earlier this year, Senator Elizabeth Warren opposed the nomination of Michael Froman as US trade representative because he refused to share any of the agreement’s developing provisions with the public. “I believe we need a new direction from the trade representative — a direction that prioritizes transparency and public debate,” she said.

I was skeptical at first of some of the more florid claims about the TPP. Opponents hail from the edges of both the left and right. Last month WikiLeaks released what it says is the “secret negotiated draft text” of the chapter on intellectual property rights, which makes it sound like we will all be getting NSA chips embedded in our genomes. Michael Brune, president of the Sierra Club, wrote that “corporations would rise to the level of nations,” able to sue any government for interfering with their profits. It seemed implausible that signatories to the deal would allow their own sovereignty to be undermined by corporate rights. That’s like Citizens United on steroids.


Then I read a New York Times report about lawsuits being brought by big tobacco companies against the governments of Australia, Uruguay, and several countries in Africa for violating trade agreements by passing laws that place limits on advertising and packaging cigarettes. One company, British-American Tobacco, complained that Australia’s anti-smoking regulations violate its trademark rights, because the country requires cigarettes to be sold in drab packages. That’s just the type of “far-reaching, transnational legal enforcement regime” the WikiLeaks release decries. Philip Morris is suing Australia under a different, more limited trade agreement between that country and Hong Kong.

Poorer, developing countries are particularly targeted by Big Tobacco, because governments don’t have the resources to fight back. Margaret Chan, director of the World Health Organization, said the trade suits are “deliberately designed to instill fear in countries wishing to introduce tough tobacco control measures.”

You don’t have to be paranoid to imagine how bad things could get if this kind of legal strategy grew to encompass almost half the world’s economy. What kinds of environmental, public health, and civil rights laws might be seen as trade violations by the likes Halliburton, Chevron, and Monsanto, to name a few? According to Warren and other opponents, these are just three of the 600 corporations (and some non-governmental groups) that have been advising the TPP trade negotiators. Better to slow down fast-track and lift the veil. It looks like the mysterious TPP really stands for Terrible Public Policy.


Renée Loth's column appears regularly in the Globe.