There’s a reason Pope Francis has condemned “free trade” pacts like the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Pope Francis waxed radical on several big issues in his speech to Congress last September. He condemned the arms trade, called for climate action, and challenged lawmakers to protect the most vulnerable among us.
It was wonderful. But for some reason, there was one looming issue Francis chose not to confront: the Obama administration’s corporate-friendly trade agenda.
I wish he had.
Just weeks after the pope’s historic visit, the United States and 11 other countries announced an “agreement in principle” on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP — a huge “free trade” pact that could undermine crucial labor and environmental protections in countries making up 40 percent of the world’s economy.
The Vatican’s thinking on the matter is no secret.
When the pope visited Bolivia in July, he delivered an unmistakable invective against economic policies that exploit the world’s poor. “Neocolonialism,” Francis said, “takes on different faces” — including “some treaties named as ‘free trade.’”
Other Vatican officials have spoken out directly against the TPP itself.
Archbishop Silvano M. Tomasi, for example, calls the TPP “asymmetric” against poor countries, since it requires them to loosen laws that protect local workers and consumers in exchange for trading with richer countries like the United States.
Doctors Without Borders and other groups have argued that the TPP will reduce poor countries’ access to life-saving medicines, weaken food safety, coddle the fossil fuel industry, and make it harder to rein in Wall Street and the rest of the global financial casino.
Yet the Obama administration still insists on calling the TPP “the most progressive trade deal in history.”
And indeed, an official summary of the agreement — the full version is still top-secret — offers up some nice-sounding commitments to shared prosperity, sustainability, and gender equality. But if you check the fine print, you’ll see that the pact only promotes “voluntary cooperative work in these areas.”
Compare that to the guaranteed perks big corporations would get, including “the basic investment protections found in other investment-related agreements.”
Those “basic protections” are exactly what make agreements like the TPP so dangerous. These measures allow corporations to sue governments for enforcing any laws — including common-sense health, safety, and environmental protections — that might affect a company’s bottom line.
Take the El Salvador case that’s been in the World Bank court’s dock for six years. Under terms set by the Bush administration’s “free-trade” agreement with Central American countries, the multinational Pacific Rim-Oceana Gold company tried to sue the small country for some $300 million.
Why? Because El Salvador banned poisonous gold mining along a river that supplies over half of its drinking water. Pacific Rim essentially argued that investment rules favored its right to mine over Salvadorans’ right to clean water.
Under NAFTA rules, meanwhile, Canada is being sued for revoking fracking permits and making medications like anti-depressants more widely available. And Mexico has paid out over $200 million worth of penalties to rich corporations like Cargill.
Farther south, tobacco giant Philip Morris is suing Uruguay for $25 million, claiming that the health warnings the country requires on cigarette packs violate a similar investment treaty.
No wonder, as Francis warned in Bolivia, “transnational companies are becoming stronger to the point that local economies are subordinated,” leaving smaller countries “powerless to carry out development projects in the service of their populations.”
The TPP would make this common practice for nearly half the globe. That’s why it must be stopped.
The pope knows it. Politicians from Bernie Sanders to Donald Trump know it. Even Hillary Clinton, who once called the TPP “the gold standard in trade agreements,” says she knows it now, too.
It’s a pity the pope didn’t try to talk some sense into U.S. lawmakers about trade deals. But it’s not too late for him and others to make the moral case against the Trans-Pacific Partnership.