TTIP – threatening, terrible, traumatic….

The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) – the trade deal being negotiated in secret between Europe and the USA – will give companies the power to control wide-ranging government policy. This is a corporate power grab, and at a time when people are said to be engaged with politics as never before, it is vital we have a high public awareness of the need for resistance.

In Scotland, we are reliant on the UK Government to negotiate the terms of the deal as an EU member state. With the NHS in England currently up for sale under the Health and Social Care Act 2012, it is under direct threat from TTIP, and there is concern that the Scottish NHS will come under pressure from corporate interests too, as public spending decisions in Westminster impact upon the Scottish budget.

Worries for the future of the health service are met with assurances that investment agreements will explicitly state government public policy decisions cannot be overridden, and that this would safeguard the NHS. However, under TTIP, transnational companies could use ISDS (Investor-State Dispute Settlement) – in other words: secret offshore corporate courts – to sue a government if its policies affect their profit margins.

This raises the prospect of governments being open to legal action if, for example, they implement stricter controls on the quality of medicines, regulations on the quality of companies providing care within our borders, or order improvements to staff pay and conditions.

ISDS can only offer compensation and nobody claims it would change government policy directly, but it can award multi-million pound pay-outs in compensation after dragging governments through an expensive legal process, so the effect is chilling – massively influencing the government public policy decisions that get made.

Although the UK has not yet been sued under ISDS where it exists in other bilateral trade agreements, it has happened in other countries already. Phillip Morris sued the Australian Government over plain cigarette packaging, with the effect that New Zealand opted to await the outcome of that legal case before deciding whether to introduce plain packaging themselves.

Plain packaging has been shown to benefit public health, so for governments to be blocked from setting policy that’s in the public interest by the very companies it is in the public’s interest to safeguard us against is an appalling prospect. TTIP allows corporations to get in and influence the direction of public policy before anybody else, from charities to community groups and beyond, have had a chance to explain their views.

The Phillip Morris case is just one example of a public health initiative we would seemingly not be able to enact under TTIP, and whether or not the NHS itself was exempted from any deal (to whatever extent that is possible in isolation), the NHS would be left to pick up the pieces and the costs when it comes to the consequences for health care in the UK.

While statements from the Scottish Government that they want the health service to be exempted from TTIP are welcome progress, the concern remains ahead of the general election that, with the exception of the Greens in Scotland and the rest of the UK, there is no meaningful political opposition to TTIP itself within our parliaments, or a recognition of the threat the deal poses more widely to our public services, as well as to the sovereignty of the governments we elect.

Fortunately, the NHS is an emotive hook, necessary to alert people to the threats facing us all. Not only would we continue to hand over billions of pounds of public money to private healthcare interests, but under TTIP it would be impossible to roll back any privatisation, no matter how strongly the public want to see it happen now or in the future.

However, TTIP is about far more than the NHS alone. The same concerns for public ownership of services, and the sovereignty or accountability of governments making public policy decisions apply right across the board. At a time when each Prime Ministerial contender is committed to public spending cuts far beyond those decimating service provision in local communities already, unambiguous opposition to TTIP from 2015’s Westminster candidates is essential.

Under TTIP, our inability to reverse the reckless privatisation of key services will make permanent a variety of serious problems across the UK. Whether it is the Royal Mail, cuts to service provision for the most vulnerable in society, or changes to employment law that benefit corporate profits to the detriment of workers, TTIP would leave us unable to take responsibility and put the needs of our people ahead of corporate greed. The Greens’ policy of renationalising rail is one of the most popular policies around, but TTIP would make it impossible for any government to achieve.

As Friends of the Earth Scotland point out, the deal is also a threat to decades of environmental progress in Europe, from restrictions on toxic chemicals to our own climate laws in Scotland. Again, the implications for public health and the burden on the NHS are clear.

It is suggested more than 80% of the gains from TTIP would come from the removal of regulatory barriers between the EU and USA, with the USA’s regulatory approach in many sectors being significantly weaker than current EU standards. In Scotland, anywhere our policy is more progressive than other countries, from climate change to alcohol and tobacco control, under TTIP ISDS claims could follow.

It is vital that we are not thrown into a race to the bottom in terms of regulating our food, chemicals, agriculture, or anything else, in order to make life more profitable for US conglomerates.

People are seeing TTIP as a blueprint for how all the future trade and investment deals across the world will be done. It is clearly a corporate power grab that undermines democracy, with the rights, and health, of individuals severely compromised. We do not want to further open government decision-making to corporate control, and massive financial penalties for putting the public interest ahead of corporate greed.

Richard Doherty works for the Green MSPs in the Scottish Parliament