WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama used his State of the Union address Tuesday night to urge the United States to pass two key trade agreements, including the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership and a new deal with the European Union that human rights say will impede access to medicines and degrade labor standards.
Obama emphasized the promise of new export markets for American goods. But his administration's record on trade has been ambiguous on jobs and problematic for advocates of improved public health and Internet openness.
Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations in recent years have drawn an intense outcry from public health and open Internet advocates, who have said restrictive intellectual property provisions would make lifesaving medicines unaffordable and hamper the functionality of the Web. But Obama's call for a new trade deal with the EU represents a potentially more dramatic shift in the balance of power between multinational corporations and sovereign nations.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the top lobbying group for large corporations, has been pressing for a "Transatlantic Economic and Trade Pact" for years.
"It is clear that eliminating transatlantic tariffs would enhance the global competitiveness of U.S. and European companies on the world stage," reads a post on the chamber's website. "However, a tariffs-only approach is not enough. The Chamber has broadened its proposal for a Transatlantic Economic and Trade Pact to eliminate tariffs, ensure compatible regulatory regimes, and address investment, services, and procurement. The Chamber is calling for U.S. and EU leaders to commit to launching ambitious talks on this agenda by the end of 2012."
Consumer groups have said they worry that the pact would roll back important provisions protecting the public from corporate excess.
"The whole agenda is this deregulatory agenda -- there's not much left in terms of traditional trade policy between the U.S. and the EU," said Lori Wallach, a trade lawyer at Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group. "It's food safety standards, financial regulation, chemical safety, pharmaceutical access rules, Internet freedom and antitrust rules."
The EU and the U.S. were key players in negotiating the World Trade Organization treaties in the 1990s, which granted corporations new political powers to overrule the laws of other nations in international courts. In the years since, several companies have challenged environmental regulations and public health provisions in both the U.S. and elsewhere.
But the World Trade Organization deals include some protections for developing countries, particularly involving medicine, allowing them to provide lifesaving drugs at reasonable costs, regardless of the prices requested by pharmaceutical companies that own drug patents.
Since those WTO agreements were finalized, the U.S. has sought more restrictive deals with individual nations. The Trans-Pacific Partnership marks the largest such deal since the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1993. Thus far, public health officials said they have been troubled by the deal, as the Obama administration has sought provisions that would increase the cost of drugs at home and abroad.
"It would be great if President Obama addressed the challenges of the current innovation system and how his administration could establish a better agenda that both creates jobs and makes medicines affordable and accessible to people in poor countries," said Judit Rius, U.S. manager for the Access Campaign at Doctors Without Borders, a humanitarian organization. "The U.S. needs to find a trade policy that adheres to his administration and previous administration's commitments to global health. The TPP is a huge conflict with those stated goals."
Open Internet advocates said they hoped Obama would reverse efforts to impose restrictive copyright standards in trade pacts that threaten the Web.
"Maybe we'll be pleasantly surprised and President Obama will make good on his campaign promises to renegotiate international trade agreements to ensure meaningful labor and environmental protections," said David Segal, executive director for Demand Progress, a liberal activism group. "In light of the SOPA protests, we hope that and increased political participation by Internet freedom groups informs whatever negotiations he undertakes."