In Depth

What is TTIP and why is it causing controversy?

The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership aims to create the world's biggest free trade zone

Deep rifts have surfaced in the European Parliament over what could become the world's biggest trade deal between Europe and the United States.

Yelling, booing and slow clapping were heard in the Strasbourg chamber last week after a debate over the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) was suspended.

Members of the public have also been protesting against the deal, fearing it will hand more power to large corporations at the expense of ordinary citizens.

So what does the deal involve and why is it so divisive?

What is TTIP?

The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership is a free trade deal between the United States and Europe that has been under negotiation for almost two years. An agreement would see the dawn of the world's biggest free trade zone, shaping the rules governing a quarter of all global trade.

It aims to cut red tape, making it easier to import and export goods, as well as to invest and set up new businesses abroad. The European Commission predicts that it would boost the size of the EU economy by €120bn and the US economy by €95bn by 2027, reports the BBC. Supporters of the deal say these savings would filter back to individuals, who would also benefit from cheaper goods and greater choice.

Who is negotiating TTIP?

The European Commission, led by trade commissioner Cecilia Malmström, is leading negotiations with the US, but members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have the power to veto any trade deal that does not meet their demands. It also has to be ratified by the US Congress, the European Council and by the national parliaments of all 28 EU member states.

Why is TTIP taking so long?

"Negotiating trade deals takes time – sometimes several years," says the European Commission. Harmonising regulations is said to be key to the talks – which appears to be a lengthy task. Jude Kirton-Darling, Labour MEP for the North East of England, says a positive outcome on TTIP could present a "unique opportunity to regulate globalisation and to promote the high standards on which the EU prides itself". But first, she says, people's concerns must be heard – and many people think standards will be reduced to the lowest level rather than raised to the highest.

Last week, MEPs had been expected to greenlight the EU's negotiating position on the deal, but the vote and the debate were suspended amid angry scenes. Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament, said the sheer number of amendments suggested by MEPs meant the vote should be delayed so that the revisions could be properly considered. Campaigners say the large number of tabled amendments highlights the controversy of the deal.

What are the arguments against TTIP?

Critics fear it will undermine democracy in Europe and the US by favouring the rights of large corporations and preventing governments from regulating in the public interest. The Corporate Europe Observatory, a research and campaign group, claims that 92 per cent of 560 lobby encounters with the commission have come from private sector companies, while just four per cent have come from public interest groups.

Campaigners in Europe think EU regulations on areas such as food safety, employment rights and the environment could be watered down. "TTIP is a huge threat to hard-fought-for standards for the quality and safety of our food, the sources of our energy, workers' rights and our privacy," says Green Party leader Natalie Bennett. For example, she fears that by harmonising food standards, the UK would be forced to allow chemically washed poultry, livestock treated with growth hormones, and genetically modified crops – which are all allowed in the US. More than two million people have signed an online petition against the deal, describing it as a "threat to democracy, the environment, consumers and labour standards".

Opponents say the guarantee of market access effectively outlaws state monopolies, which could pose a risk to government-run services such as the NHS. Critics have serious concerns about transparency and a clause called the Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS), which they claim would allow corporations to sue governments in private. 38 Degrees, an activist group campaigning against the deal, says its details are being "worked out in secret" and will allow big corporations to take governments to court behind closed doors.

What do negotiators say?

EU officials behind the negotiations insist TTIP would uphold current EU standards and leave governments free to run public services as they wish. Negotiators are being "as transparent as possible" and have published fact sheets explaining every chapter of the TTIP, they say. Negotiators also want to tighten up existing ISDS regulation for settling disputes between foreign firms and governments, with public access to hearings. But judging by the ongoing campaigns against TTIP, it appears many don't entirely trust the EU's claims.

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