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The Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) negotiation shuts out public participation and we have written extensively about why that is a problem. The agency leading the negotiation, the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR), however, seems completely oblivious to these problems, arguing instead that it has given opportunities to all stakeholders to present their views. The mere opportunity to present our views to the USTR, without more, does not cure problems with TPP’s process. However, it provides us with a minuscule opportunity to influence its outcome. And the USTR is jeopardizing even this opportunity.
Here’s how: The next round of TPP negotiations will take place in Dallas, Texas in May. The USTR’s style of seeking public input or “stakeholder engagement” during these negotiations privileges some stakeholders while keeping the public in the dark.
As part of the “stakeholder engagement” for the Dallas round of negotiations, the USTR is allowing groups, on a first-come-first-served basis, to set up tables at the InterContinental Hotel in Dallas on a Saturday. The idea is to allow negotiators, on their day off from the negotiations, to come up to stakeholders and engage in conversation. However, the announcement of the negotiation dates or “stakeholder engagement” event is not public. The USTR’s website or press releases do not provide any information about it. While we managed to get word of the event, it would have been possible to entirely miss this information or more likely find out about it when the USTR officially announced it at a much later date. What makes the situation worse is the fact that the ability to participate is on a first-come-first-served basis.
Providing information to the public at such a late stage would allow the USTR to claim it is seeking public input without giving a meaningful opportunity for such input. Late announcements make it expensive, especially for public interest groups, to book travel, make hotel reservations, or plan side events. If the USTR were serious about hearing from all stakeholders, it would announce its events and negotiation dates publicly, including through its website, and provide a real opportunity for the public interest representatives to engage with country negotiators.
Also, the “stakeholder event” has curiously changed format. During previous negotiation rounds, the USTR provided a formal stage for public interest stakeholders to give presentations to negotiators. As I said before, this time we will be allowed to stand behind tables and hope that negotiators come up to us to ask questions.
The reason for the change in the format of the stakeholder event is unclear. The new format could prove to be a less effective in getting negotiators' attention. Because the new format would not ensure focus on one issue at a time, our message will get diluted. Also, negotiators are less likely to seek us out at a venue where large numbers of groups have set up tables to talk about diverse issues. I hope the USTR either returns to its old format of stakeholder presentations or adds them in addition to the stakeholder tables.