Despite the U.S. Trade Representative's concerted efforts to push through a deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) will not be completed by the self-imposed deadline of the end of this year. That announcement, made in Singapore today at a closed press conference, is welcome: the U.S. Trade Representative's accelerated timeline has served as yet another means of restricting transparency, and a key pressure point in its campaign to get the U.S. Congress to abdicate its oversight role by granting "fast track authority." If you're in the U.S., you can contact your legislators and tell them to oppose that effort.
The closed press conference itself was representative of the needless secrecy surrounding the negotiation of this agreement. While the TPP ministers laid out the new timeline and opened the floor to questions, public interest groups were limited to the lobby of the building—not even allowed to stand in the back of the room and watch.
Of course, the announcement also comes just days after a leaked document showed major rifts in the positions of different countries and highlighted a number of substantive proposals where the United States has failed to secure international support for its stances. The TPP ministers announced "substantial progress" in the agreement, but no firm explanation of how the situation had changed since the release of those documents.
Without such an explanation, the public continues to rely on leaks to get important information about the agreement. And while they have been very helpful, leaks are no substitute for transparency. With both this most recent and earlier disclosures—such as the WikiLeaks publication last month of an entire draft proposal for the chapter titled "Intellectual Property"—the public gets just a snapshot, which may be out of date and incomplete.
There is one surefire way for negotiating countries to eliminate these leaks. They could simply release these documents, which are, after all, being negotiated in the public's name. Instead, the public has gotten glances only through the efforts of whistleblowers and groups like WikiLeaks. Even absent substantive complaints about the text—which are many—the completely opaque negotiation process is enough to strip the agreement of its legitimacy.
For the U.S. Trade Representative to ask for fast track authority against that backdrop is audacious, and for Congress to even consider it is irresponsible. Even without public text, the pushback against this agreement has been overwhelming. In just the past week we've seen Chilean legislators demanding their government provide more transparency to negotiations, Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz raise 12 "grave risks" presented by the leaked chapter, and even the Holy See take a stance against the policy-laundering associated with opaque multinational agreements.
Efforts to rush the agreement to completion despite those complaints are misguided at best, so it's a good thing that those efforts have stalled for the time being. But any reprieve is likely to be short, and in the new year negotiators are likely to ramp up the pressure.
The U.S. Trade Representative has been negotiating as if it already had fast track authority; our best hope in the U.S. of getting some oversight for this agreement is to ensure it doesn't get it. Contact your legislators today and tell them: no fast track authority for shady backroom deals.