Right after the election, I pointed out that the 2006 elections may have signaled the beginning of the end for so-called "free trade." Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, had a story a few days ago that described how some of the battles are starting to shape up. It's subscription only but here are a few snippets:
Business groups say they are willing to offer Congressional Democrats major concessions if that’s the price to pay for passage of a long list of contentious free-trade agreements. But with both sides gearing up for huge battles this year, activists against the trade agreements scoffed at what business lobbyists deemed concessions.
Trade agreement critics said they are looking to steer clear of any traps that big corporate interests might set to help get the agreements across the finish line.
“The trap is that the multinational lobbyists, and their friends in Congress, have said ‘OK, you’d like to get better labor and environmental standards? OK,’” said Alan Tonelson, a fellow with the United States Business & Industrial Council and a vocal trade critic. “The problem is, it would be very easy for them to offer a purely symbolic compromise and one that would do absolutely nothing to solve our trade problems.”
Yet lobbyists for big companies that support new agreements with countries such as Peru and Colombia say their opponents are shifting their demands in mid-debate and making it impossible to find compromise. In addition to those agreements, a bruising fight is shaping up this year over whether the Bush administration should keep its fast-track negotiating authority.
Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, a group that has lobbied against several recent agreements and opposes the current drafts with Colombia and Peru, said her coalition could be swayed to drop its opposition.
“The outside groups — labor, environment, poverty — we’ve all come to a point, for the Peru and Colombia agreements, if the really outrageous stuff was taken out, we’d stand down,” Wallach said.
Wallach included as “outrageous stuff” patent protections for pharmaceutical companies. Another sticking point with the Peru and future agreements is they would give companies that operate ports in those countries “an absolute right to set up business in the United States,” she said, reigniting this past year’s debate over whether Dubai Ports World should operate U.S. ports. The Dubai company operates ports in Peru, Wallach and Lopes said.
Wallach added that the concessions on labor that business groups are willing to make are ones they lived with in past agreements, including one with Jordan. But pro-free-trade lobbyists said they didn’t have to make such concessions for the past six years of Republican dominance.
“Now the business guys are running around, acting like it’s a revelation, basically trying to get credit for saying that they are unbelievably flexible,” Wallach said. “The business guys haven’t done anything new.”
We'll see. I still don't like trade deals that have some labor and environmental provisions stuck on to deals whose framework is corporate rights. What we need is a total revamping of the framework of trade. But, in the interim, I suspect the people out there fighting the good fight feel that getting some improvements is worth the effort.