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October 07, 2014

Growing Controversy over Investor-State Corporate Privileges in U.S.-EU Deal

Opposition to the once arcane “investor-state dispute settlement” (ISDS) system has ballooned. ISDS empowers foreign corporations to bypass domestic courts, challenge governments’ public interest policies before extrajudicial tribunals and demand compensation.

Widespread resistance to ISDS has pushed the Obama administration to become increasingly defensive about its plan to expand the regime through a proposed Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA) with the European Union (EU). The administration recently published a justification for its push for ISDS. We will address the claims made in that document on this blog over the coming weeks (for a full rebuttal to these claims, click here for our new report).  

The administration’s attempt to quell the controversy surrounding the proposed expansion of ISDS via TAFTA was recently complicated when German government officials made clear that even EU member states do not want the deal to include a parallel legal system for corporations to privately enforce sweeping investor rights. TAFTA must be approved by the 28 EU member states, including Germany.

One day before the Obama administration published its ISDS defense document, Germany’s Federal Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy Sigmar Gabriel warned the European Commission that Germany may oppose TAFTA if ISDS is included in the pact. On March 26, 2014 Gabriel wrote to EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht, “From the perspective of the [German] federal government, the United States and Germany already have sufficient legal protection in the national courts,” and Germany “has already made clear its position that specific dispute settlement provisions are not necessary in the EU-U.S. trade deal.” 

Gabriel’s remarks echo the official anti-ISDS position of the Socialists and Democrats Group, the second largest bloc in the European Parliament, which also must approve TAFTA. The bloc explicitly opposes the inclusion of ISDS in TAFTA out of concern that it would empower foreign firms to undermine health and environmental policies.

Facing mounting governmental and popular rejection of ISDS, the European Commission has sought to make clear that it is the Obama administration that is demanding its inclusion in TAFTA. One week after Gabriel first indicated Germany’s opposition to ISDS in TAFTA, De Gucht clarified that the EU had actually already formally proposed to U.S. negotiators that ISDS be excluded, but that the U.S. government continued to insist on its inclusion: “If the United States agreed to simply drop it [ISDS]…so be it…But they don’t. I’ve already submitted it [the idea] to them, and they don’t.” 

The new President-elect of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, has already suggested that he opposes ISDS in TAFTA, stating in the TAFTA section of his official policy agenda, “Nor will I accept that the jurisdiction of courts in the EU Member States is limited by special regimes for investor disputes.” The Obama administration, however, has shown no change in its insistence that ISDS be included in the deal.

The Obama administration has also become increasingly isolated at home in pushing for ISDS, as libertarian and Tea Party groups have expressed ISDS opposition alongside the labor, environmental, consumer, health and other organizations that represent the President’s base. In March the libertarian CATO Institute, for example, published an article entitled “A Compromise to Advance the Trade Agenda: Purge Negotiations of Investor-State Dispute Settlement.” 

U.S. state and local governing bodies have also made clear that they see investor-state provisions as a threat to their autonomy and basic tenets of federalism. The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), a bipartisan association representing U.S. state legislatures, many of which are GOP-controlled,  has repeatedly approved a formal position plainly stating that NCSL will oppose any pact that contains ISDS.

Another major complication for the administration’s defense of ISDS is the crescendo of increasingly audacious investor-state cases and rulings seen in recent years. As one policy area after another has come under attack in ISDS cases, opposition to the regime has steadily grown.

Take, for example, the investor-state cases that U.S. tobacco giant Philip Morris International has launched against Uruguay’s tobacco regulations and Australia’s cigarette plain packaging law to curb smoking. The measures have been praised by the World Health Organization as leading public health initiatives. They apply equally to domestic and foreign firms and products. Australia’s highest court ruled against Philip Morris in the firm’s domestic lawsuit against the policies. But using ISDS, Philip Morris is demanding compensation from the two governments, claiming that the public health measures expropriate the corporation’s investments in violation of investor rights established in Bilateral Investment Treaties (BITs).

In another highly contentious case, Vattenfall, a Swedish energy firm that operates nuclear plants in Germany, has levied an investor-state claim for at least $1 billion against Germany for its decision to phase out nuclear power following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. This comes after Vattenfall successfully used another investor-state case to push Germany to roll back environmental requirements for a coal-fired power plant owned by the corporation. 

Such extrajudicial attacks on nondiscriminatory public interest policies have made clear to the public and legislators that the standard defense of ISDS – that it is a commonsense means for foreign investors to obtain fair treatment if they are discriminated against – does not comport with the reality of the regime, fueling broader ISDS opposition.

Stay tuned for more on the growing controversy surrounding the proposed expansion of the investor-state system via TAFTA, and the Obama administration's weak defenses of the regime. 

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