Hardly anyone seems to know anything about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP. That’s not surprising because it’s being negotiated in considerable secrecy by EU and US trade representatives, yet could have widespread implications for Europe’s environmental policies and much else besides.

Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation Richard Bruton, who inaugurated the negotiations during Ireland’s presidency last year, is an unapologetic fan. He sees “huge potential” in the deal, saying studies show it “could create 400,000 extra jobs in the EU” and boost Europe’s economy by at least €100 billion.

The seventh round of talks began just as a new European Commission – structured by Jean-Claude Juncker in a way that seems to downgrade the environment as a policy priority – takes power in Brussels. And there are fears it may be more willing to compromise with the Americans on basic principles.

One of the core issues at stake is the right of countries to make regulations in the public interest. The US side is seeking to have enshrined a provision that would allow companies to seek redress for any “violations” of their investor rights through an arbitration tribunal set up under the deal, rather than the courts.

Take the Government’s plans for plain cigarette packaging. These are being fought not only by the tobacco companies but also by the US Chamber of Commerce in Brussels. If TTIP came into force in the way the Americans would like, they could sue for compensation over this “infringement of intellectual property rights”, bypassing the courts.

In other words, business would take precedence over what is clearly a measure intended to protect public health. And it wouldn’t be the first time. When Australia decided to introduce plain cigarette packaging, the Asian division of Phillip Morris threatened to sue under similar terms of a treaty with Hong Kong.


Key demands

Investor state dispute settlement, with an arbitration tribunal determining each case, is one of the key demands of US trade negotiators in the talks – although a report commissioned by the British government found that it was “likely to have few or no benefits to the UK, while having meaningful economic and political costs”.

In other words, it would sacrifice sovereignty on the altar of unfettered free trade, with big corporations calling the shots. This is backed by lobbies such as the Transatlantic Economic Council, which was set up in 2007 to press for more market deregulation, allowing free access to Europe for US goods and services.

Environmentalists fear these could include food products with genetically modified organisms (GMOs). But the commission insists basic laws, like those relating to GMOs, or that protect human life and health, animal health and welfare, or environment and consumer interests, will not be part of the negotiations.