Reporting from the TPP Negotiations: You Call This "Engagement?"
“Flush the TPP!” was the rallying cry heard outside Virginia’s Lansdowne resort on Sunday at a protest against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, as trade officials negotiated the secretive pact behind the resort’s closed doors. “Everyone remembers NAFTA right? How it destroyed jobs and destroyed people and destroyed communities?,” Ron Collins asked the crowd, representing the Communications Workers of America. “We're not going to allow the TPP to do the same!” Taking the microphone, Allison Chin of Sierra Club warned, “[The TPP] could increase exports of liquefied natural gas, which would mean more dangerous fracking here in the U.S.” Matt Kavanagh of Health Gap solemnly concluded, “I stand here on behalf of people who are living with AIDS around the world who are saying no to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, who are saying that, in fact, this is life or death.”
Throughout the rally, protestors criticized the unprecedented secrecy of the TPP negotiations. While the office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) has consulted with over 600 mostly corporate “advisors” on the content of the classified TPP text, it has consistently denied access to the public, press, and even members of Congress. In the last few months, USTR has refused repeated demands from civil society and our elected representatives to release the TPP negotiating text, while reversing the longstanding practice of allowing members of Congress to observe "trade" deal negotiations.
Without a hint of irony, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk has declared the TPP negotiations to be “the most open, transparent process ever.” Perhaps such claims refer to the “stakeholder engagement” activities that also took place at Lansdowne on Sunday. While Public Citizen and other organizations welcomed the opportunity to present critiques to negotiators, calling the events “engagement” stretches the word beyond its bounds.
The morning began with stakeholder presentations, in which groups ranging from Public Citizen to Walt Disney were granted 10 minutes each to speak on a particular aspect of the TPP. Perhaps because they regularly get direct access to U.S. negotiators, corporate representatives were outnumbered by TPP critics, who lambasted TPP proposals for threatening access to medicines, Internet freedom, and capital controls. (In a presentation room focused on intellectual property vs. access to medicines, three out of every four presenters argued that TPP would jack up medicine prices.) Global Trade Watch’s Lori Wallach gave a full-house presentation on the dangers of the TPP investment chapter, which would invite unaccountable private tribunals to use increasingly imaginative interpretations of foreign investors’ rights to rule against public interest regulations.
While a continuous string of civil society presenters aired such concerns, the number of people able to hear them was severely constrained by rooms the size of a freshman dormitory. Each of the stakeholder presentation rooms had a seating capacity of just 18 people. While a few TPP negotiators competed with NGO and corporate representatives for standing-room-only space, most gave up and left. Meanwhile, immediately adjacent to the briefing “dorms” were an array of larger meeting rooms, a massive ballroom, and other conference facilities—all unoccupied. USTR’s decision to sequester civil society stakeholders to four tiny rooms in a 50,000-square-foot conference center did not signal genuine interest in engagement.
While some stakeholder sessions were prohibitively packed, others stood nearly empty. U.S. trade officials did not notify negotiators about who was speaking when or where until shortly before the stakeholder presentations. When finally circulated, the schedule did not include the names of presenters. Unless a speaker knew to email their target audience of negotiators directly, they often faced a room with few attendees and even fewer negotiators.
Then there was the matter of double-booking. Rather than schedule the extended stakeholder day of past TPP rounds, this time USTR narrowed the “engagement” window to a three-hour block. They squeezed into this block not only the stakeholder presentations, but a simultaneous period of “direct stakeholder engagement” located in a ballroom at the other end of the Lansdowne resort. There, stakeholders were invited to stand behind tables with their materials and try to engage in one-on-one conversations with negotiators. In response to USTR’s unprecedented efforts to conceal the secretive TPP text after two and a half years of negotiations, many civil society organizations around the room, from the American Student Medical Association to the AFL-CIO to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, displayed palm cards and stickers that proclaimed "TransParencyPlease: Release the Text!"
Public Citizen’s table featured the many recent letters from members of Congress expressing concern with the TPP, as well as updated polling data showing that a majority of the U.S. public opposes NAFTA-style free trade agreements. Posters surrounded the table with the message "Fast Track for the TPP? Fat Chance!" translated into all the official languages of TPP countries, warning other country negotiators that they should not trust USTR’s far-fetched claim that they will easily get Fast Track trade promotion authority for the TPP.
Nearby, the Citizens Trade Campaign set up a projection of a live twitter feed displaying in real time the messages sent to negotiators from people around the world. An adjacent laptop provided negotiators the opportunity to respond to citizen comments (though we didn't see any negotiators actually take advantage of that opportunity). In spite of the absurdity of the setup, with negotiators somehow expected to attend presentations at one end of the resort while simultaneously engaging stakeholders by tables at the other end, Public Citizen did manage to talk to several negotiators who expressed interest in our materials.
Later in the afternoon on Sunday, lead negotiators for eight of the nine current TPP countries sat across from dozens of stakeholders in the large ballroom, now reconfigured as a briefing space, for a question-and-answer session. There were far more questions than answers. Stakeholder after stakeholder walked up to a microphone to ask how the negotiators planned to deal with a particularly concerning element of the TPP. Of the 22 questions asked, 21 expressed only concern or criticism for the TPP. While the questions tended to be targeted toward specific provisions of the deal (data exclusivity, footwear, investors’ “minimum standard of treatment,” etc.), the responses tended to be:
- vague (e.g., “To the extent that countries have concerns or issues with the proposal that has been brought up to people, we would expect to hear a refined solution to address those concerns.”),
- evasive (e.g., “The U.S. is reviewing that decision and will determine how or whether we think that amendments are needed to the text as we discuss internally the implications of that decision.”),
- or missing (e.g., “I really don't have anything to add at this time.”).
In some cases, pointed questions, such as “Do countries have thoughts about how to expand access to affordable medicines that have come forward in these negotiations?” were met with literal silence.
At the end of the day, were we, as stakeholders, “engaged?” Not really. We were placed in tiny rooms to give ten-minute presentations primarily attended by other stakeholders. We were simultaneously provided with tables to stand behind while hoping for a negotiator sighting. We were given the opportunity to ask questions to lead negotiators who were not inclined to actually respond. And through it all, we were left to guess at the brunt of the TPP’s content while the negotiating text remained off limits. Ron Kirk will no doubt call Sunday a day of “openness” and “transparency.” Those of us at Lansdowne that day can attest to the elasticity of Kirk’s word choice as we continue to push for real transparency and genuine engagement.