MPs have won access to documents covering controversial and secretive trade talks between Brussels and Washington, but can only take a pencil and paper into the room where the files can be viewed.
Confidentiality rules mean no electronic devices – including phones, tablet and laptop computers, or cameras – are allowed in the room at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) in Westminster. This is fuelling concerns about a “cloak of secrecy” surrounding the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations between the EU and the US government.
UK business minister Anna Soubry agreed to provide the room in BIS’s offices on the condition that MPs keep the TTIP documents private. Soubry said pressure on Brussels officials from EU governments had won the concession, but the department was obliged to maintain secrecy.
Green MP Caroline Lucas said that access to documents on “this hugely significant trade deal” was necessary before UK parliamentarians were asked to vote on it. “But the bad news is that a cloak of secrecy still surrounds TTIP. If the same rules apply here in the UK as they do in Brussels, which is what the minister is implying, then MPs will be bound by a confidentiality agreement if they want to see the text,” Lucas said. “This opaque process, which shuts citizens out of this crucial debate, is profoundly undemocratic.”
A BIS spokesperson said: “Similar restrictions will apply to those accessing the room as apply to both MEPs and UK officials using existing reading rooms in Brussels. Due to the sensitive nature of these classified documents, all those who are granted access to them are expected to handle and protect them appropriately.”
MEPs are also only permitted to view TTIP documents in a secluded room and make notes with pencil and paper. A spokeswoman for the European parliament said: “Although note-taking is normally not allowed when consulting classified information, in this case the commission has agreed MEPs can take handwritten notes when consulting the TTIP documents.”
The spokeswoman added that an “unprecedented number of documents” had so far been declassified in a “transparency initiative”.
The next round of TTIP talks will begin next week in Brussels between European trade commissioner Cecilia Malmström and her US counterpart, trade representative Michael Froman. Both sides said progress had been made at a week-long meeting in Miami last year and they hoped to get closer to a fully fledged trade deal this year.
The aim of the deal is to lower trade tariffs and harmonise regulations covering thousands of goods and services, including financial services. Brussels, which claims it has consulted widely during the talks, estimates that tens of billions of euros of extra trade could flow across the Atlantic after a deal. But TTIP has come under fire for threatening public services and giving powers to corporations outside individual nations’ domestic court systems.
A plan to include a separate tribunal system that would allow private companies to settle disputes has caused alarm after a series of incidents in other trade agreements that resulted in multinational companies suing governments. In the most high-profile case, tobacco company Philip Morris took the Australian government to an investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) tribunal when the Canberra parliament agreed to enforce plain cigarette packaging.
Earlier this week, anti-TTIP campaigners said that ISDS would also allow corporations to challenge tax changes that hit their profits. A report published by Global Justice Now and the Transnational Institute warns that a deal “would massively increase the ability of corporations to sue member states of the EU over measures such as windfall taxes on exceptional profits, or use of taxation as a policy instrument”.
Nick Dearden, the director of Global Justice Now, said: “Despite the enormous public outcry over companies like Google and Amazon paying ridiculously small amounts of tax in the UK, the government is trying to sign us up to a trade deal that could effectively prevent us from bringing about laws that could address tax injustice.
“The ability to enact effective and fair tax systems to finance vital public services is one of the defining features of sovereignty. The fact that multinational companies would be able to challenge and undermine that under TTIP is testament to the terrifying extent of the corporate grab embedded in this toxic trade deal.”