All eyes were focused on Hawaii from July 28-31 as trade ministers from twelve Pacific nations gathered there to hash out details on a landmark deal that will increase trade between the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Japan, and other states in the Asia-Pacific region and Latin America.
Though many had expected an agreement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership to emerge from the multilateral meeting, no such accord was reached. Representatives from the countries may meet again soon to advance the deal, which has been six years in the making.
Nothing but hints, trickles and leaks getting to the public
Though coverage of the top-level talks has been dominating the headlines, the actual meat of the negotiations remain shrouded in secrecy, only hinting at the issues that may be holding countries back from signing the deal (though Wikileaks has also leaked drafted sections of the deal).
In recent days, reports have indicated that the openness of dairy markets has been in question, with New Zealand demanding open access, while Canada remains reluctant to subject their protected industry to greater international competition.
Beyond these trickles of information, very little is actually known about the substance of the proposed trade agreement, as only those directly involved in the discussions, as well as a restricted number of “stakeholders” from business-focused and public interest organizations, have access to the documents in question.
Governments – in particular, the administration of U.S. President Obama – defend this practice of secrecy.
They argue that it’s necessary to cloak the talks to improve the quality of negotiations and secure the best deal possible.
Divulging too much would jeopardize negotiations
Making the talks transparent would risk bringing too much valuable trade information to light, making it harder for nations to negotiate in their best interests.
Keeping the talks secret also insulates governments from having to wage a two-front campaign, from both within the negotiations, as they attempt to secure the best deal for their constituents, and on the domestic policy scene.
But criticism over the lack of transparency in the negotiations has resonated far and wide, with newspapers, political opponents and occasionally allies of governments in power demanding greater access to the terms being discussed at these talks.
New Zealand, one of the nations involved in TPP talks, has openly pushed its negotiation partners in order to be more transparent.
Historically, international trade deals were always conducted with less than full disclosure by participating governments. However, the internet age has increased the demand for transparency, with citizens insisting they should be kept abreast of any movements which may impact them economically in the future.
Reaching such a critical trade deal – which has real implications for entire industries and individual businesses, in not only issues of competition, but those of regulation as well – behind closed doors will only decrease public trust in the deal, other observers warn.
Is secrecy taking the power from the people?
Such practices bring to mind recent European Union negotiations with Greece, with democratically-elected politicians engaging in top-secret talks and ultimately impressing upon Greece punishing terms for a necessary bailout to save the country from having to leave the Eurozone.
Though the issues are not the same, the TPP’s staunchest critics argue that the “democratic deficit” problem is very similar.
When politicians which have not been elected by a particular state are instrumental in making integral economic choices, the public loses trust in both their elected leaders and the process overall.
Pursuing the agreement in such a huis clos fashion will also make it more difficult for future administrations to pursue trade deals later on, critics argue.
In the end, there is no guarantee that the TPP will come to pass, especially considering that several of the major players – including the U.S. and Canada – are now either in election season, or facing pending elections before the trade agreement can be stamped and sealed.
Do you think it’s necessary to keep trade deal contents confidential? Does keeping the contents of negotiations secret take too much power out of the citizen’s hands?