By AEPF Working Group, Stiftung Asienhaus, May 2, 2016
In recent years there has been a significant increase in free trade and investment deals that are negotiated and signed globally. Besides the so-called mega regionals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) or the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) several bilateral and regional free trade and investment treaties are on the agenda of governments and business. Besides the USA, which has recently sealed its deal with the Asia-Pacific region by signing the TPP, the European Union also looks to at Asia. The free trade agreements with Singapore or Vietnam can be understood as blue prints for future trade and investment agreements.
Trade and investment are also used as tools in development politics. The EU's Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP), especially the Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme, is supposed to bring benefits to Least Developed Countries (LDC) also from Asia, giving several countries duty free access to the EU market for their exports, except arms and ammunition.
Advocates of free trade usually promote the triggering effects of such deals for cheaper production chains, the increased opportunities for exports etc. Meanwhile, critics analyze the negative impacts that will occur because the free trade and investment agreements are mainly benefiting large corporations from the global north that are looking for cheap production sites in the global south. Further, these agreements assure an easy and low cost access to human and natural ressources in countries where these „goods“ are available, namely in Asian, African or Latin American countries. The strong export orientation implied by free trade deals brings along a natural obstacle to the development of a healthy local or regional economy, which in the long run will have negative impacts on the development paths of poorer countries that followed the temptation of quick export opportunities.
Too, in times where climate change and environmental degradation are hitting the world, the endeavors of governments and business to trigger economic growth by increasing global trade – which will lead to continuously mounting global transport and hence more and more carbon emissions – seem like a mockery towards the voices of the climate and environmentalist movements but also to the climate protection deal that has been signed by governments themselves in Paris. Additionally, the trade and investment deals must be understood as a threat towards citizens' rights and participation, democratic state-building as well as rule of law. Often these deals are negotiated in secrecy - with national parliaments or civil society often not being allowed to get insights into the draft papers while representatives of business and their lobbyists belong to the entourage of negotiators.
The mechanism of investor-state-dipute-settlement (ISDS) that is usually part of free trade and investment agreements is totally favor of corporations' interests. It bypasses national legislation by putting its ruling to off-shore, not democratically legitimized privately run „courts“, punishing states who want to enact for example protective laws for the benefits of their citizens. Cases where national legislators decided for example to enforce laws on health protection against the interests of the tobacco industry or laws on environmental protection against the interests of polluting energy companies have shown that the ISDS will be used to make the governments pay exorbitant fines to the companies that see their future investment potential and benefits being threatened by national legislation.
Hence, in many countries in the EU and in Asia, protests of social movements, farmers, and even business as small and medium sized enterprises have been adressing the negative impacts of this development. As the ASEM summit brings together governments and companies, the AEPF shall be used as a space for the Asian and European civil society to analyze impacts of trade and investment patterns that are on the political agenda of Asian and EU governments. It shall provide opportunity to formulate specific critical analysis by taking into account the voice of citizens, but also bring up alternatives for a more sustainable development path that ensures a fair and just socio-economic agenda. It could discuss questions of how a democratic economy can look like, how a shift towards an Asian-EU fair and participatory trade agenda might look like. Further it could be a space where social movements can exchange their experiences with successful struggles, trigger solidarity among Asian and European activists and build a platform and an ongoing process beyond the AEPF summit, where movements from the EU and Asia create a stronger joint activism for a more just, democratic and sustainable future also in the economic sphere, namely in trade and investment.