European free trade deal with the US would need wholesale reform to win the SNP’s support

Chicago gangster Al Capone was finally jailed not for his violent crimes but for tax evasion. Trade and finance law can cover a lot of stuff, and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership ("TTIP") is a case in point. It is of huge significance, and tomorrow the SNP members will decide our policy on it. As you would expect, we'll have a democratic debate and vote at conference open to all members. I have drafted the motion along with Chris Stephens from the SNP Trade Union Group (and candidate for Glasgow South West) and I appeal to delegates to support it.

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Published in The National 27 March 2015

The scope of the deal is vast. Done right, it could open up huge markets for Scotland in the USA, a country we have better and friendlier links with than many EU states. There could be a lot of potential Scottish jobs and growth at stake at a time when a lot of folk could really do with them. Done wrong, it could open up our public services in health, social care and even water to US (or domestic) corporations; lower our food, animal health and environmental standards towards American levels as well as open our country to GM food imports; award companies and investors a new special set of legal rules beyond the reach of the general law; and in significant ways undermine Scotland's democratic right to decide how we run our country. 

This is not a hypothetical fear and I'm not given to hysteria. We're pro business but we serve the Scottish public first. We have seen in recent years that some companies and front organisations are only too quick to threaten government with court, and I speak as a former lawyer. The Scottish government has seen court action from the insurance companies over pleural plaques; the tobacco companies over tobacco display; and is currently before the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg because, shamefully, the Scotch Whisky Association seeks to put the profits of drinks producers before the health of the people of Scotland in challenging minimum unit pricing for alcohol.

The TTIP negotiations dwarf all of that. They are well underway now, between the European Commission representing all 28 EU member states, and the US federal authorities. The negotiations have been done in secret. That is not in itself unusual, but TTIP is not a regular trade deal and I'm not satisfied the process nor content has had due scrutiny. To the extent we are represented in the process so far, we're represented by the UK government. I have no faith in blithe assurances that everything will be alright when we can see what policies the UK coalition is progressing down South.

But it will eventually be subject to democracy – or a form of it at least. The European Parliament will at some point probably 18 months away have a vote to approve it or reject it. Six MEPs will vote on Scotland's behalf, and as one of them I have a duty to make people aware of what it is and how it could affect our lives. As an MEP I have been allowed access to the locked secret vault where the TTIP papers are kept. Having seen it, as it stands I simply can't support it. TTIP will need to be reformed wholesale before it can count on our support.

Crucially though, the motion SNP members will debate tomorrow does not close the door. Instead it sets out our red lines and instructs SNP MEPs to remain engaged, work with stakeholders like the unions and bring forward a further substantive position on TTIP at a later date so that our members can instruct us whether to support the eventual treaty once we actually know what it entails.

Because TTIP is work-in-progress, negotiators know they'll eventually need SNP votes. That puts SNP MEPs in a potentially useful position, whereas outright opposition now, as some parties have done, simply shuts off any potential influence they could have had and so guarantees a worse treaty than we might yet achieve. The SNP does not have the luxury of opposition, and we take our responsibility to the people of Scotland seriously.

But I'll promise this now and you can hold me to it: before I will approve it, any agreement must be genuinely beneficial for Scotland as a whole and must not be of detriment to the quality of our regulation nor the health of our democracy. In the SNP the members are in charge, and I hope that is a position our members can support.