By Thomas Mc Donagh and Aldo Orellana López for the NJGI
The European Commission’s public consultation on the inclusion of the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanism in the investment chapter of the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is clearly a result of growing citizen concern and civil society pressure.
Even though the scope of the Commission’s consultation has come in for severe criticism from civil society groups, the high profile that this issue has garnered in Europe in recent months represents a unique opportunity for campaigners.
In order to facilitate a strategy conversation among activists and civil society groups on ISDS in the TTIP campaign, NJGI recently interviewed an activist at the centre of the campaign in the United States: Arthur Stamoulis* from the Citizen’s Trade Campaign.
We began by asking him what strategic opportunities and challenges he sees for campaigners in the US given the current high profile of investment rules and ISDS in Europe.
Network for Justice in Global Investment (NJGI): We see the current moment in Europe with the new high profile of the TTIP in general and investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) in particular as being a big moment at which point this issue could go one way or the other. So in general terms we wanted to ask you from the perspective of a U.S. campaigning organization, how do we take advantage of the current moment in Europe in the most strategic way?
Arthur Stamoulis (AS): I’d say from the start, maybe taking a step back, that one of the big challenges and the big opportunities surrounding the TTIP/ TAFTA debate for U.S. based organizers is that it isn’t centered on offshoring. The political reality in the U.S. is that job loss and wage suppression have long been the primary concern for most Americans when it comes to trade agreements. A distant second has been human rights and then there have been pockets that been very vocal about sovereignty and the environment and consumer safety and similar issues. But those haven’t really risen to the forefront. With TTIP/TAFTA questions of job losses, wages and human rights aren’t completely absent, but they’re certainly not front and center. Issues that are going to be front and center are questions about things like ISDS, regulatory convergence and energy policy. And so it’s been interesting to organize without that political argument about the domestic economic impacts. It forces you to focus on other threats in trade agreements and ISDS clearly one of the big ones in the European pact. So there’s a lot of analysis building and coalition building and re-education to do. It’s not that we and others haven’t been fighting ISDS since at least NAFTA, but in terms of making it the issue that we campaign on, we need to strengthen some of the ground work.
In terms of strategic opportunities I think there are quite a few. Our European allies have characterized the public consultation on ISDS that the EC has initiated as a mock consultation and of course they’re right. The consultation is clearly a reaction to the groundswell of opposition to ISDS in Europe, but it’s an attempt to deflect and coopt that opposition, not to honestly address it. Still, in the U.S., I see the consultation period as a hook to do more of that outreach and education and base building on ISDS that we need to reengage on here. One of the first responses to the consultation in the U.S. ‘— initiated I believe by AFL-CIO — was for a number of U.S. organizations to write to the Obama administration and basically say: “us too, we want you to initiate a public consultation on ISDS in the United States”. Of course, that was before we saw how slanted and shameful the EC’s consultation documents were. But still, a public consultation on ISDS in the United States, specifically in the context of pending trade agreements, would be a good organizing opportunity.
There has also been talk of how we can use the hook of the European consultation to organize different constituencies in the United States around ISDS, generate more earned media on the issue and also directly educate our members more about ISDS. So I expect in the coming weeks and months you’ll see more letters, more press work, more action alerts and things like that.
NJGI: When you say different constituencies Arthur, do have any particular constituencies in mind that you think it would be particularly strategic for campaign groups in the U.S. to reach out to at this moment?
AS: Of course, there’s always work to be done with state and local elected officials, but I’ve been particularly inspired to see the growing awareness of the dangers of ISDS and neoliberalism in general among the climate justice movement, activists focused on fracking and energy exports, etc. Whether or not that plays a major role in derailing the corporate agenda for pending pacts, I think the groundwork that’s being laid there in environmental circles will be very helpful moving forward.
NJGI: Of course there is the fracking case in Canada, the Lone Pine resources case. When we spoke to Pia from the Corporate Europe Observatory yesterday she was speaking about specific cases that are particularly useful for speaking about the issue with certain campaign groups working on specific issues. So, for fracking campaigners- speak about the Lone Pine case, or for nuclear power campaigners- to talk about the Vattenfal case against Germany. What’s your own view on this tactic of honing in on single cases when speaking to campaign groups working on specific issues?
AS: Educating people about specific cases will really help connect dots for people and make it clear that this isn’t just a hypothetical concern, this is a very real threat. I think one of the things I’ll say about ISDS in the U.S. is that the U.S. has never lost an ISDS case. Certainly there have been court costs associated with them and certainly the U.S. has lost state-to-state dispute cases at the WTO. But the fact that we have never lost an ISDS case has been a powerful talking point by the other side. And being able to point to the specifics of cases like the Lone Pine case, like the Pacific Rim case, I think has really woken up some people who haven’t really been focused on this issue, who haven’t been working on this for years like many trade campaigners have. It has helped people to connect those dots and to see that this is a real threat to the work they’re doing. It’s a threat to the environmental justice movement. As the environmental movement in the U.S. becomes better connected to global movements through the lens of climate justice, I think there is more opportunity for global solidarity and I think it’s critical to be educating people using specific cases.
NJGI: What we’ve seen, and this also came up in our conversation with Pia yesterday, was that awareness increases when there is a case. In Germany, the government’s position on ISDS in the TTIP/NAFTA is clearly a reaction to the swing of public opinion as a result of the Vattenfall case. So whenever there is an absence of cases, as in the U.S., that must present real challenges for communicating this issue.
AS: It does and I think the growing awareness and international connections among our movements has helped people to see beyond the U.S domestic borders and that has been helpful. The Lone Pine case in particular, being against Quebec as opposed to a smaller developing nation, has made it easier for some issue-based groups to connect dots more readily than even the Pacific Rim mining case or other very egregious environmentally oriented ISDS cases. It’s certainly true that if there was a major loss by the U.S. I think you’d see a lot more campaigning against ISDS.
NJGI: Why does the Lone Pine case against Quebec help in communicating the issues, in what ways does that help in communicating the issue?
AS: Number one because it’s against a fracking moratorium and a lot of US campaigners and U.S. environmentalists are very actively fighting fracking projects right now and so there’s the direct connection to the issues that they are working on in a very real and specific way. It’s not a tangential issue like opposing mining, it’s specifically opposing fracking.
Beyond that, the fact that it’s happening in Canada, a country that’s right next door to the U.S., where people speak English and it’s perceived as a “first world country,” that makes it also real to a lot of groups — that the chickens may come home to roost if this system is expanded throughout the globe.
NJGI: That’s great Arthur. You and your campaign group have been quite successful in the campaign against fast-track authority in the U.S. in relation to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement. We wanted to ask you about the lessons that you’ve drawn from that campaign. What has worked? What has been effective? And are there any ways in which those lessons can be applied to a campaign in the U.S. on the TTIP?
AS: That’s a good question. I think one of the lessons of the fast-track campaign thus far is that it takes a lot of work — steady organizing efforts for years just to get an issue to reach a basic level of consciousness even among activist communities, let alone the general public. There is a need to be very strategic and go, in terms of our fast-track campaigning, congressional district by congressional district, to make a difference and really coordinate through the “movement of movements” to make that happen.
The movement to defeat ISDS is, in every way, much more global than our domestic campaign against fast-track in the U.S. Thus, I think one of the arguments that we need to get away from is that ISDS is inappropriate for an EU-US trade deal because they are both first world countries with highly developed justice systems. It’s a tempting argument because it puts a lie to the justification that ISDS proponents have always used, which is that they only want ISDS because you can’t get a fair shake in certain poorer countries’ court systems. But if our organizing in the United States and Europe against ISDS in the context of TTIP/TAFTA is going to support the, in many instances, much stronger movements against ISDS in other countries, such as Indonesia or India or elsewhere, then the critique of ISDS that we put out needs to be much broader.
I think one of the lessons that’s worth keeping in mind for campaigners in the U.S. and in Europe is that our arguments are not gong to be what wins any trade fight. It’s our organizing and the power we build. So, let’s be righteous in our critiques of ISDS and other parts of the neoliberal agenda. And let’s organize in such a way that helps us win the next fights further down the road and not be too narrow in this critique in this particular context because you know it is that base building, that power building, that wins these fights, it’s not arguments.
NJGI: That’s great Arthur. We’ve covered most of the key questions that we wanted to cover, do you have anything else that you’d like to add?
AS: Just to reiterate to you guys that I have been very focused on the fast-track campaigning and that other groups have been much more focused on the ISDS case in particular. So if you do want more detail, I think there are other good groups that could go into it a lot deeper with you. I love the newsletter, I appreciate your work and I’m glad to help out any way I can.
NJGI: Aldo just mentioned a question in relation to NAFTA- a lot of focus has been on the 20th anniversary of NAFTA in recent months. In terms of the campaigning against NAFTA over the years and maybe looking at the ways that that’s been communicated, the communication strategy around NAFTA or the organizing strategy, are there any lessons that can be drawn from that?
AS: That’s an interesting question. I think that certainly, in the U.S., as I said from the outset, most people have approached trade agreements through the lens of how it affects jobs, wages and public services in their community. If Americans know about any trade agreement at all, it’s about NAFTA. And so I think as we move forward, particularly with the European agreement, there is a good opportunity to expand people’s analysis of what these trade agreements are all about. It’s not that work hasn’t been done on ISDS in the context of NAFTA and other trade agreements since. I’ve already seen many more organizations involved, organizations that maybe should have been involved in all of these fights, but certainly are getting involved now in the context of the European agreement because the threat of ISDS and other deregulatory pieces of the pact are front and center. Job loss and domestic economic impacts aren’t, so that’ll be interesting to see how that evolves moving forward.
NJGI: For sure. Finally, we just have a question about your campaign group, in relation to how it’s made up and how it works?
AS: Citizens Trade Campaign is a U.S. based coalition of twenty-three labor, environmental, family farm, consumer and human rights organizations that works together to stop the expansion of NAFTA-style free trade agreements and to promote a just and sustainable global economy. Our coalition works in two ways. We’ve got an executive committee made up of representatives of those member organizations who set overall policy direction, who do joint lobbying on Capitol Hill, who do joint press work and things of that nature. And then we also have state-based affiliate coalitions in ten states that do, frankly what I consider to be the most important work, of on-the-ground, district-by-district organizing and mobilization, really putting pressure on members of congress on these issues. We also have resources where we try to pull in activists and people at the grassroots in other parts of the country as well. But that’s the main way that we organize.
NJGI: That’s great Arthur, thank you very much for your time.
* Arthur Stamoulis is Executive Director of Citizens Trade Campaign, a national coalition of labor, environmental, family farm, consumer and human rights organizations working together for trade policies that promote a just and sustainable global economy.