You could be forgiven for not having heard of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), since it has had little mainstream media coverage. TTIP is a free trade agreement between the US and the EU which is currently being negotiated on behalf of EU citizens by the European Commission.

This is a particularly important trade agreement because of its scope – in terms of both the number of countries, and the services and regulations, that will be affected. It has implications for government procurement, public services (including the NHS), finance, food, chemicals, the environment and legal services – to name but a few sectors.

The main aims of the TTIP, as explained by a parliamentary briefing, are to increase trade and investment by reducing tariffs, aligning regulations and standards, increasing protection for overseas investors, and improving access to government procurement markets by overseas providers.

The improved investor protection is to be achieved through the ‘investor state dispute settlement’, which will give foreign companies a right to take legal cases directly against nation states if those companies believe they have suffered expropriation or discrimination.

Clearly, there is a potential tension here with the public interest. One example of how the settlement mechanism works in practice is Swedish energy company Vattenfall taking legal proceedings against Germany for €3.7bn under the Energy Charter Treaty, following Germany’s decision to phase out nuclear power.

Another example is tobacco company Philip Morris taking action against Australia following its decision to pass legislation on the plain packaging of cigarettes.

Corporate lawyers have praised the TTIP – including in the Gazette. But one major problem is that it is being negotiated in secret. This means citizens and civil society organisations are shut out of the debate, and rely on leaks to get an idea of what is actually happening.

What we do know should be cause for concern. The vast majority of the stakeholders feeding into the TTIP negotiations are powerful corporate interests. ‘Civil society dialogue’ was established by the commission and a meeting was held in January.

But the ‘civil society’ representatives at that meeting were largely business and lobby groups, including the Confederation of British Industry, the Confederation of European Community Cigarette Manufacturers, the European Dairy Association, the Industrial Ethanol Association and the European Petroleum Industry Association.

In the UK, an all-party parliamentary group on EU-US trade and investment has been established. The secretariat to that group is BritishAmerican Business, which describes itself as ‘the leading transatlantic business organisation, dedicated to helping companies connect and build their business on both sides of the Atlantic’.

There do not appear to be any strong advocates for wider social and environmental goals feeding into these negotiations.

Changes may come about quickly. It is intended that the TTIP be concluded in 2015. The window to input into these negotiations is very short.

In the interests of democracy, we urgently need a proper, informed public debate on the TTIP – and it needs to go beyond the proposed EU consultation on the investor state dispute settlement.  

Melanie Strickland is a solicitor at a health charity