Watchdogs: Trade deal could weaken regs

A major United States-European Union trade pact being negotiated threatens to undermine a wide array of important safeguards, ranging from financial regulations to environmental protections, public interest groups said Monday.

The warning came on the first day of negotiations in support of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) in Washington. Unlike traditional trade deals focusing largely on tariffs, the TTIP agreement will center on regulatory issues that affect trade between nations.

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In areas where regulations are disparate between the U.S. and Europe, negotiators are likely to consider harmonized policies in an effort to ease trade barriers, Public Citizen President Robert Weissman said.

“When they do that, it’s going to go to the lowest-common-denominator standards,” Weissman said.

The result, Weissman and others charged, would be a weakening of rules in place to protect the public.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and others have said that sweeping new financial regulations drafted in response to the 2008 financial crisis would not be up for negotiation.

But Weissman said those and other rules could be imperiled if the pact includes a common provision known as investor-state dispute resolution, which would enable companies to sue foreign governments directly over regulations they oppose.

For instance, the "Volcker Rule," which prohibits banks from lucrative but risky trading practices, could come under fire if the investor-state provision is included in the deal.

The provision would give corporations “new and far reaching rights to challenge government policies,” said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club.

“This agreement could lead to a surge in attacks on public interest policies,” Brune said, who also warned it could hurt environmental protections. 

European regulations governing Internet and data privacy are currently stronger than those in the United States, said Susan Grant, director of consumer protection at Consumer Federation of America.

But business interests will be pressing for eased rules on both sides of the Atlantic, she said.

“They don’t want anything like the European style of presuming that consumers have a right,” Grant said. “They want to be completely unfettered.”

The advocates pointed to chemical and toy safety, energy efficiency, monopoly protections and the exports of oil, coal and gas as areas that might be subject to watered down regulations if the TTIP settlement is too business friendly.