Secret Trade Negotiations Could Threaten Britain's Popular National Health Service


As we noted in a Government Matters article a couple weeks ago, the Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA), also referred to as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, is set to include dangerous Investor-State Dispute Resolution mechanisms that grant private corporations the unprecedented right to sue sovereign governments in extra-legal tribunals for "lost revenues" that they claim resulted from important public protections. This poses significant threats to essential standards and safeguards including environmental preservation, food security, and chemical safety.

Now the British Medical Association (BMA), England's largest union of doctors and medical students, is warning its members that the trade agreement's inclusion of these unprecedented corporate privileges could also result in "significant damage to the health of Europe's citizenry" by opening up the widely popular National Health Service to less effective and more expensive private competition. Specifically, BMA is concerned with the following passage in the European Commission's impact assessment on the future of EU-U.S. trade:

In line with WTO rules, the EU usually includes general exceptions in its trade agreements with respect to the environment and public health, which can legally override the trade obligations. The EU and the US will therefore keep its "policy space in regard to these matters."

While this statement is intended to assure consumer advocates that environment and public health will remain a priority in the trade negotiations, BMA is not confident such statements will actually protect the National Health Service. In comments submitted to the Minister for Trade and Investment at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, BMA highlighted two particular concerns:

  1. The definition of "public health" as used by the Commission's impact assessment is currently unclear. If the definition…used by the UK Faculty of Public Health is applied, this statement would appear to prohibit key aspects of the NHS – most commissioned and provided health services – from legally overriding future trade obligations.

  2. The statement that "the EU usually includes general exemptions in its trade agreements with respect to…public health," is ambiguous and could lead to greater commercialization of NHS.

The General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trade Union (GMB), a general trade union in the United Kingdom with over 620,000 members, is echoing the BMA's concerns and demanding that the UK secure an opt-out from investor-state dispute resolution mechanisms in the U.S.-EU trade pact. GMB warned that the mechanism could allow wealthy corporations, such as health insurance companies in the U.S., to sue the UK if the company is prohibited from buying up services currently provided by the NHS. Emphasizing concerns about the extra-legal procedures by which the dispute resolution tribunals operate, GMB further stated that it "cannot support a treaty that will allow the future of the NHS to be decided outside the UK by a bunch of unelected, unaccountable lawyers in New York."

BMA and GMB are just two of the growing number of worker safety and consumer protection organizations speaking out about the dangers posed by the trade agreement, and specifically, the inclusion of an investor-state dispute resolution mechanism in the agreement. Australia, in banning such measures from future trade agreements back in 2011, proves that granting unprecedented corporate rights and violating sovereign court systems is not necessary in creating successful trade agreements and economic growth.

The United States, Great Britain, and all nations negotiating under TAFTA should listen to the warnings from the consumer protection community and follow Australia's lead in refusing dangerous and unparalleled secret corporate trade rights in this and all future trade agreements.

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