Today it’s emerged that off the back of ongoing campaigns, the NHS will most likely be exempt from the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) – a free trade agreement between Europe and the United States – which could see US health care providers with greater powers over NHS services.
TTIP is a trade agreement between Europe and the US that many campaigners and Labour MPs – including Andy Burnham, the Shadow Health Secretary – have criticised as part of a back-door privatisation of NHS. That’s because TTIP has the potential to build upon the coalition’s Health and Social Care Act – which forces the NHS to compete for contracts and throws open the doors for international competitors to enter into the fray – by giving US health care companies more powers over the NHS. For instance, the significant deregulation that the agreement signals could render Clinical Commissioning Groups (GP commissioning bodies) powerless to resist legal challenges from US health giants.
But, today the Guardian today has reported that Ignacio Garcia Bercero, director of the USA and Canada division in the European commission, has written to former shadow health secretary John Healey to tell him that the EU health services “can be fully safeguarded.” He went on to address the UK’s health service directly, clarifying that “there is no reason for fear either for the NHS as it stands today, or for changes to the NHS in future, as a result of TTIP.”
Bercero explained that under TTIP “member states do not need to provide access to their markets for foreign companies and even if they do give access they can discriminate between foreign companies and EU / domestic ones”.
The EU commissioner also implied that if Labour wanted to reverse the Health and Social Care Act TTIP shouldn’t limit them from doing so. He explained “if a future UK government, or a public body to which power has been devolved, were to reverse decisions taken under a previous government, for example by discontinuing services provided by a foreign operator, it would be entirely at liberty to do so. However, it would have to respect applicable UK law.”
Healey has embraced the message relayed in this letter, recognise it as “a significant step forwards for all or us campaigning for a full exemption for NHS in any EU-Us trade deal”. But he’s warned that the job to protect the NHS isn’t over, saying “our task together is to hold the chief EU negotiator to his word, force Cameron to back the same public service protections and make sure people see the biggest threat to the NHS are the Tories not TTIP.”
Healey is right. Although this is a heartening promise from the EU commissioner, the potential impact of TTIP in relation to the NHS needs to be monitored.
Yet this isn’t where the story ends. Despite the fact the rest of TTIP is supported by Labour (because they say it could bring £4billion to the UK), are we sure that the wider implications of the agreement are all that positive?
The core aim of TTIP – the negotiations over which were first announced by Barack Obama in his State of the Union Address in February last year – is to get rid of regulation that limits transnational corporations from making profit.
But EU and US regulation aren’t exactly well-matched in this respect, and scrapping regulation could prove dangerous for citizens’ rights across the EU. Unions are worried that TTIP will lead to lower wages and weaken labour rights, while environmental activists point out that it could undermine our environmental regulations (the UK could be forced to reverse its ban on asbestos, for instance).
As campaigners, most prominently campaigning group War on Want, have pointed out, perhaps one of the most worrying aspect of the agreement is the ‘investor-State dispute settlement’. This could give the corporations the right to sue governments over public policy that causes them to lose profit. If the government wanted to renationalise the railways, for instance, they could be faced with a lawsuit from private companies.
And amidst all of these potential threats, experts have said the benefits of the treaty are “vastly overblown”.
So although Labour’s stance on TTIP in relation to the NHS is a promising one, this agreement contains other significant dangers. There’s far too much secrecy around and far too little coverage of TTIP. Before it goes any further, we need an open discussion about the deal. And not just among politicians, but the wider public.
Update: Here’s Bercero’s letter to John Healey in full: