The upcoming EU-US and EU-Canada trade deals have serious implications for the NHS

After the government pushed through its widely opposed privatisation regulations it is time now to focus on the big trade deals and look to the G8 meeting in June. There is a reason the public are being told nothing about them - because they won't like what they hear.

Contrary to Coalition promises, the privatisation and liberalisation of the NHS, opening the publicly- funded NHS to transnational investors, has now been fixed in legislation. The Health and Social Care Act, and particularly its accompanying Section 75 regulations, enforce competitive bidding for contracts. The House of Lords motion to support the annulment of the Section 75 regulations failed on 24th April.

But what did not emerge in the prolonged and polarised debate about these NHS changes was the fact that the Act and the accompanying regulations were prepared to fit with the proposed US/EU free trade agreement which David Cameron is promoting and furthering in his current trip to the US.

While there is certainly a role for ongoing monitoring of the new NHS structures and arrangements, activists must now move beyond the focus on national legislation to recognising, exposing and challenging the wider international agenda of secretive trade deals which underpin it. This is the context into which this public health funding giveaway fits. 

The EU’s international trade agreements, including corporate rights to access government spending, are actively promoted by transnational financial interests - well represented in the City of London. 

The major component of the US/EU free trade agreement is ‘regulatory harmonisation’ between the US and the EU, harmonising existing but particularly new regulation for maximum benefit to transnational corporate investors.

Although the US/EU trade deal process has not yet been formally launched, the preparatory harmonisation of regulations has been in train for some time. Health was named two years ago as a primary target in an EU Trade Commission meeting on this deal.

Thus the Health and Social Care Act and its accompanying regulations have been prepared with input from trade bureaucrats with this free trade agreement in mind. When signed, it will make the NHS changes irreversible in practice.

In mid-February, Presidents Barroso and Obama announced that the EU/US trade deal process would be launched in summer. However, David Cameron, overexcited at the prospect of the launch of this massive trade deal coinciding with his chairing of the G8 meeting, had already announced on 1st January how promoting the deal (obviously on behalf of the City of London) would be his G8 priority. This again shows how the trade deal has been lined up, and new legislation ‘harmonised’, for some time.

The end of the 90-day US Congress consultation on the trade deal coincides with the G8 Heads of State meeting on 17th/18th June in Northern Ireland. So the deal can be launched there, with Presidents Barroso and Obama, as well as the Irish chair of the EU for this period, in attendance.

This trade agreement, called the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) by the EU Trade Commission but the Transatlantic Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA) in the US will be a neoliberal pact between the world’s two biggest economic blocs. The stated aims are not only to ‘harmonise regulation’ between the US and the EU, but also to pull in other countries including the big developing countries like India and China. In this way, the TTIP is meant to achieve the global corporate rights and benefits that the stalled World Trade Organisation Doha Development Round has failed to deliver.

‘Regulatory harmonisation’ will without doubt mean reducing corporate regulation to the lowest levels to produce the maximum corporate benefit, and the effects will reach way beyond public health systems.

However at this point, it is the UK public health system that has been very much in the spotlight and keeping the NHS public has widespread public support. Now, in this crucial lead up to the G8, a more informed level of NHS campaigning is needed. We must look beyond the limitations of the national framework and the worn-out spin about ‘choice’ and supposed privatised ‘efficiency’. It is time to grasp, expose and reject the secretive wider trade deal dimension that the government is pursuing to please transnational corporations.

There is lively civil society activity in the US in the consultation process about this agreement. We need to take up the challenge on this side of the Atlantic before this deal is in place. Calling for David Cameron to exempt the NHS from the US/EU free trade agreement is strategic, appropriate action to defend the NHS and to challenge this agenda.

In addition to the US deal, a Canada/EU Trade Agreement (CETA) has been under negotiation for the last 3 years and may be finalised in the same June G8 window if the several sticking points are overcome. One major sticking point is rejection at the Canadian provincial level of the public procurement liberalisation that the EU is demanding.  Another is EU reluctance to accept hormone-fed beef and how much beef the EU will allow Canada to supply in the face of Irish and French farmer resistance.

Meanwhile the liberalisation of EU (including UK) public procurement is on offer without question because people here don’t know it is happening – where are the mainstream press?

Because of Canadian civil society awareness and resistance, public health there has so far been protected from trade deals but is now under intense pressure from EU demands in the CETA.

Both for the inherent implications of the CETA for EU and Canadian citizens, and for its interconnectedness to the US/EU trade deal, it makes sense to call for the NHS also to be exempted from the CETA. It will also show solidarity with Canadian campaigners.

The lack of public information here on trade deals is maintained by deliberate government secrecy. Underneath the spin and faux technicality is a trade agenda for which the bottom line is simply a free hand for corporations. Associated with this lack of transparency is the failure of the UK media to report these developments.

Within the BBC, for instance, all ‘business’ news is filtered through the corporate-captured Business Unit. The result is that only the big business view emerges, and briefings from civil society sources on this issue are not reported on. This is a real block to public debate, despite license fee funding to provide public service broadcasting.

Media interest and activity is essential to raising public awareness, to enable a demand for an NHS exemption from the trade deals and for the public to be informed when the G8 media machine kicks in.

Despite the force of vested interests, we, the people, can change this agenda.

 

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About the author

Linda is a researcher on international trade issues particularly surrounding the EU.