US-EU trade deal isn’t threat to NHS

by Jack Schickler | 12.04.2016

Myth: The trade deal the EU is signing with the US will lead to privatisation of the NHS

InFact: TTIP would not mean the privatisation of UK healthcare – and any agreement we strike post-Brexit could be worse. On this issue, as in others, we can better stand up for British interests as members of a larger bloc.

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The trade deal the EU is negotiating with the US is under scrutiny for its impact on the National Health Service (NHS). The transatlantic trade and investment partnership (TTIP) puts the NHS in “severe danger”, David Owen told the Guardian.

He is not the only one to worry. Legal advice commissioned by the Unite trade union assessed that TTIP posed a real and serious risk to UK decision-making on the NHS. These concerns also seem to be shared by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Leave campaign group.

One major worry is that the deal might mean NHS services have to open up to private competition. American companies, according to this line of thought, might take us to court under the arbitration mechanism TTIP sets up, and in effect force privatisation. Others fret that TTIP might lead to a change in NHS drug pricing policy – since US pharmaceutical companies often argue that the NHS sets prices too low.

These fears are overstated. Ensuring competition in public procurement does not mean putting public services in jeopardy. The EU has tough rules in this area but, after 40 years of UK membership of the bloc, the NHS sails on.

TTIP negotiators have been clear that the pact would not prevent governments from providing health services. In a joint statement, EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom and US Trade Representative Mike Froman said “no EU or US trade agreement requires governments to privatise any service” – nor prevents them renationalising those already privatised.

Owen is clearly not convinced by their assurances. But others are. TTIP “will certainly not mean the privatisation of the NHS”, wrote Boris Johnson last October.

Separately, Johnson has cited the ability to clinch an independent trade deal with the United States as an advantage of Brexit, as has Nigel Farage, supporting the rival Grassroots Out campaign.

For them, the question is not whether we should have an agreement with the United States. Rather, Brexiteers argue we could strike a better bargain if we make that deal on our own account, rather than as an EU member. After all, we would be free to push our own interests instead of having to reconcile them with the priorities of 27 other EU nations.

But this logic assumes the US would give us what we asked for in negotiations. However, the UK economy is less than one-sixth of America’s size, whereas the EU as a bloc is bigger than the United States.

It also assumes that other Europeans’ concerns do not coincide with our own. This is not so. Even if other Europeans do not all follow the NHS model, they still have public healthcare and other public services that they will be keen to shield from American corporations. Other EU nations will also presumably not be eager to see NHS drug prices change, since they often use those prices as a reference. And nor are we the only ones concerned over TTIP arbitration mechanisms – a backlash led by Germany has already caused those provisions to be watered down.

In defending public healthcare, as in many other issues, we can better stand up for British interests as members of a larger bloc. As four ex-health secretaries and nearly 200 health professionals and researchers have argued, we are healthier in the EU.

This article is an adaptation of a piece that previously appeared on InFacts

Edited by Hugo Dixon

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