Campaigners in Canada both for and against the Trans-Pacific Partnership have all been reviewing political weather forecasts and navigational charts of late. Following this mega-deal was an almost-daily preoccupation this summer, as it crashed through the turbulent waters and gale-force winds of global events.
Now it seems the cruise of this grand and gleaming trade deal might be coming to an end. Indeed, it may run ground, not on a coral reef surrounding some Polynesian island, but on the shores of the very country which launched the TPP several years ago. As a potential shipwreck looms, the lighthouse beam of the US Presidential race has not revealed a sleek schooner. Instead, we are told, it is the ugly hulk of a cargo freighter, leaking fuel and toxic waste and carrying away American jobs.
So, as Shakespeare might say, what tempest put the wild waters in this roar, as if they would pour down stinking pitch, so this brave vessel was dashed all to pieces?
The first hurricane blew not from the Pacific, but the Atlantic. Since the so-called Great Recession, storms have been brewing in the European Union (EU), with regular lightning bolts, mass protest and general strikes, and the promotion of far-right reactionary forces, racism and fascism. Throw into the mix proxy wars on Europe’s periphery, and the refugee crisis.
Following the Eurozone crisis, German capital was forced to push for faster and deeper integration than desired by some sections of British capital. Then UK Tory government called the June 23 referendum, which decided by two percent in favour of exiting the EU. The Brexit, condemned by Canadian media as a reactionary move, was actually a significant and courageous vote by working people, rejecting neo-liberalism.
Just as the EU has always been about much more than trade, so too has trade always been part of its DNA. Likewise trade deals are always about much more than trade. Today the EU works to shift power from elected national governments to the European Commission, where the big business agenda can hack away at existing labour rights and democracy. Indeed, as the Council of Canadians noted in a statement on the Brexit, “rejection of these destructive trade deals [NAFTA, TPP, CETA, etc.] is part of a positive vision of ‘fair trade.’”
The Brexit vote rocked the TPP boat. Since then, Obama, Trudeau and other global big shots have been on damage control. At the G20 in Hangzhou, China, Trudeau condemned “divisive, fearful rhetoric” against trade. A recent Angus Reid Institute poll that showed only one in four Canadians support NAFTA. Polls also show this sentiment continues to be strong in the USA against the TPP.
Negotiating trade deals is a temporary power granted to the US President. In 2015, after over two years of pushing, Obama got the mandate for fast-track legislation for the TPP. Essentially anti-democratic, fast-track means that Congress can approve or deny but cannot amend the deal. After the legislation is introduced, it has to be passed in 90 days and only used once. This puts some pressure on the process. To date, Obama has not begun to steer the TPP through Congress.
The November 8th US vote will also see elections to Congress. Before its successor’s term begins, the outgoing Congress will meet again for a “lame duck session,” where politicians are not directly accountable to the electorate. This is the main option Obama has for the TPP.
In August, Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate Majority leader, came out against such a vote, noting the “political climate” is “toxic” towards passing the TPP. A number of members of Congress who voted for fast-track have now re-considered.
For big business, however, a delay is no problem, if it means an opportunity to add even further trade liberalization to the TPP. This is the way to understand McConnell’s comment that the TPP has “serious flaws” and he would not support the deal in its current form.
The New York Times reported in August that business groups don’t want the TPP to come to Congress before they can lock-down enough support, holding pro-TPP events in “more than 120 congressional districts”. Darci Vetter, the chief US agricultural negotiator for the TPP, said recently that Farm Bureau lobbyists have characterized McConnell as less uncompromising on prospects of a lame duck vote.
Republican nominee Donald Trump has said he opposes the deal and would re-negotiate. On the other hand, Hillary Clinton, who initially supported the TPP, came out opposed in the Democratic primaries.
But big questions remain. The Communications Workers of America just sent an open letter urging Clinton to say she would actually vote against the TPP. Tim Kaine, Clinton’s Vice Presidential running mate, and Ken Salazar, chair of her presidential transition committee, are both on record strongly supporting the TPP. Salazar even works for a pro-TPP lobby group. Finally, the Democratic Platform (available online) calls for the standards to which the TPP should abide. In other words, it supports the TPP.
Obama opposed free trade with the Republic of Korea in his election campaign. He passed free trade with Korea three years later.
In Canada, the Liberal ‘consultation’ strategy is quite a smart tactic in this context. Under the direction of trade minister Chrystia Freeland, they have held special committee hearings in about seven major cities. Initially they only heard the captains of industry. Then they allowed the public two minutes. Then “Town Hall meetings,” which continue at the riding level this fall.
As one Tory insider told the National Post, “The Trudeau government didn’t want to waste taking a positive position unless it looked like it would pass through Congress.” But, the Post notes, Freeland recently went out of her way to note a minor internal Global Affairs Canada study endorsing the TPP “wholeheartedly.”
For some months, trade unions, social movements, and Communist Party of Canada have been running campaigns against the TPP. Maude Barlow and the Council of Canadians will launch a cross-Country tour on the TPP in November, after their annual conference in St. John’s. They will no doubt reflect that the deal is far from dead, but in volatile waters, like a vessel facing the icebergs that lurk off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. With unity and struggle, there is still a chance for the labour and people’s forces to build a tempest that can sink this dangerous ship.