In spite of previous suggestions to the contrary, the proposed EU-US free trade deal will, after all, include the NHS, trade minister Lord Livingston admitted on Monday. The deal, known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership or TTIP, is a priority of David Cameron’s government – a “once in a generation” opportunity. But officials have been taken aback by the extent of public hostility.
At the heart of this opposition is the fear that the TTIP will give big business vast new powers over public services like the NHS, and undermine rights at work, environmental protection and food safety standards. According to a poll commissioned by Unite, 68% of people in marginal constituencies oppose the inclusion of the NHS as part of the deal. Even among Tory voters, just 23% supported its inclusion.
After weeks of the government telling the public that “the NHS won’t be affected”, Lord Livingston has admitted that Cameron won’t exclude the NHS, because the TTIP is too good an opportunity to sell our “world class health services” to the US market. This also means US health corporations would gain new “rights” to sell their health services here. And should they be impaired from doing so by, let’s imagine, a future government abolishing the Health and Social Care Act, those corporations will have the right to sue the British government through a parallel legal structure created by the TTIP. They won’t even have to go through our domestic court system.
The same fate awaits other public services and potential public services, from education to transport and energy provision. Protecting or renationalising services will mean the government is forced to “compensate” foreign businesses that want to invest.
It’s no wonder that an opinion poll commissioned by 38 Degrees at the weekend found that 39% of those surveyed thought the TTIP would be bad for Britain – three times as many as thought it would be beneficial.
The government’s strategy is becoming increasingly defensive. Yesterday, Livingston again repeated that the UK would benefit to the tune of £10bn. This is a fantasy figure, as former trade minister Ken Clarke has admitted. Even more ludicrous is the idea that the average UK household will “benefit by as much as £400 a year” – as if any advantages that do accrue would equally benefit every household in the country.
Perhaps the minister should be more worried that the same studies he is quoting from also predict that more than a million jobs would be lost in the EU.
So the government is now down to its last defence: suggesting that those opposed to the treaty are motivated by “anti-American” sentiment. But it is precisely in the US where opposition to the TTIP, and its sister treaty the Trans-Pacific Partnership, has been most vociferous. Democrat opposition in Congress has even prevented President Obama from getting special “fast track” negotiating authority.
Without this authority, the TTIP’s chances are radically reduced. That’s a good thing, because TTIP isn’t simply a threat to the NHS, or even public services in general. It’s an aggressive expression of the “free market” ideology that should have been binned with the financial crash. The defeat of the TTIP will be one more nail in its coffin.