Trade delegates and ministers held another week of secret, back-room meetings over the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement in Australia, which ended yesterday with seemingly little advancement towards a final deal. The most recent leak of the TPP Intellectual Property chapter revealed that on top of the many threats to user rights we've already known about, negotiators are proposing new provisions on trade secrets—and they're among the most atrocious, overreaching provisions in the entire text of the TPP. Since we don't know what has been decided or changed since the May 2014 meeting from which this leak came, we have no way of knowing if the worst of these provisions still remain in the agreement or if they were discussed at all at this latest meeting in Australia.
If you've been following the news about TPP, it can be hard to read the mixed signals coming from different parties involved in the negotiations—most say it's at a standstill, while some others claim they're making progress. But if you look at the political motivations behind these claims, it's clear that even official statements should be read with a high degree of skepticism.
The US Trade Representative (USTR), one of the leading voices in touting the advancement of these TPP meetings, has an interest in boasting about their progress even if there hasn't been any. The USTR needs Congress to pass fast track authority, which would limit Congress' own ability to debate or hold hearings on the provisions of this deal, and restrict them from amending any of the TPP's terms. In that case, in the end, it would all come to an up-or-down vote to pass the entire pact. There is a strong incentive for the USTR to play up any movement being made in the TPP so that they can convince US officials that there is some kind of momentum going for this deal. By playing up the progress that is being made, the USTR can increase its pressure on Congress to pass fast track authority sooner rather than later.
Trade ministers, including USTR head Michael Froman, released a joint statement following their weekend meeting in Sydney. It states that they have made "significant progress" during these talks and that they are crystallizing "the shape" of the agreement. Meanwhile, the Japanese TPP minister had said that there is still no end in sight and other close observers have said the same. It could be likely that the official joint statement from the ministers is exaggerating any notable progress that were made in the talks, in order to avoid accusations that the deal is stalling.
But even if it were stalling now, that doesn't mean we can let our guard down. There are powerful interests at play who have a strong desire to see this thing passed. They've already spent five years negotiating it, likely spending millions, if not tens of millions, of dollars sending delegates around the world to hammer out a deal that would benefit their most influential industries. Congress could pass fast track during the lame duck session after the November elections, or in January during the new Congressional session. If that were to happen, the USTR can then turn around and guarantee to its trading partners that Congress will no longer have the authority to change any of the terms of the deal once its signed. That could be enough to renew the USTR's bargaining power to get those other countries to cave in and concede to the provisions that they now resist and conclude the deal.
The future of the TPP could be decided in the coming months. The ongoing secrecy, paired with the privileged access to texts afforded to corporate advisors, both point to an agency that does not respect the democratic process nor the concerns of the broader public interest. If the USTR is so myopic to believe that it has the authority to carry on the way it has, there's no way of knowing what it, along with its friends in Congress, will do to legitimize this whole process. The most obvious way this could happen is if the USTR and the White House can convince Congress to quickly and sneakily pass fast track without the public having the opportunity to stop it.