Surprise! The second round of negotiations for the massive Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA) won’t be happening in Washington, DC in December as planned. It will be happening in six days. In Belgium.
That was the last-minute announcement in an email sent by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) at 9:40pm last night.
But don’t worry. If you are someone who is concerned about what the deal's proposed deregulatory terms could mean for the safety of your food, the cleanliness of your air, the stability of your economy, or the privacy of your data, you can still air such concerns with TAFTA negotiators.
That is, so long as you can get yourself to Brussels by next week.
USTR’s email yesterday invited “stakeholders” to a “briefing session” next Friday where “non-governmental organizations, consumer groups, trade unions, professional organizations, business and other civil society organizations will have the opportunity to exchange views with U.S. and EU chief negotiators.” It just happens to be taking place on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.
This may well be the most expensive “stakeholder engagement” opportunity presented by the Obama administration for one of its sweeping “trade” deals. At current prices, the cheapest last-minute flight to “exchange views” with TAFTA negotiators in Brussels would set you back $1977. That may not be a problem for the approximately 600 corporate trade “advisors” who are already deeply involved in helping USTR craft TAFTA negotiating positions. For the rest of us, it’s a bit like getting an email invitation to your friend’s destination wedding in Cancun a week before the ceremony (psst...I don’t really want you to come).
Unfortunately, such barriers to public oversight have become all too common at USTR. In an announcement USTR sent last month to notify press outlets of upcoming events, entitled “Press Week Ahead,” not a single event was actually open to the press. The seven posted events ranged from closed-door Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations that threaten to drive up the cost of medicines, to a corporations-only discussion with USTR about a new pact with China that would empower Chinese firms to challenge U.S. domestic policies, to a private USTR meeting with the CEO of BMW. All seven events were marked “Closed Press.”
What do our trade negotiators have to hide? If USTR actually wants to ensure that sweeping deals like TAFTA reflect the interests of U.S. consumers, why give them a week’s notice to fly to Brussels to express those interests? Or is it possible that the plans being hatched for TAFTA, the TPP, and other pacts actually threaten the public interest, and that hiding this reality requires inaccessible negotiations, secretive texts, and “closed” events?
It’s time to shine the light of public scrutiny on shady “trade” deals that implicate everything from job availability to GMO labels to Internet freedom. The texts must be public. The events must be open. And the opportunities to engage must not require a $2000 plane ticket.