Why Australian cigarette packaging has Brussels reaching for smelling salts
It isn’t often that Australia rates a mention in the European Union’s corridors of power. And that’s no bad thing: the long-running diplomatic stoushes with Canberra over agriculture and market access are seen here as water under the bridge. No news is definitely good news.
Yet for the past few months Australia has been the talk of the town. A little-known investment treaty between Hong Kong and Australia, signed in 1993, is being used as a cautionary tale of what lies in store for Europe as it negotiates its way towards what will be the biggest free-trade and investment agreement ever. And Europe’s executive is responding by saying it has learnt from Australia’s mistakes.
Here’s how it happened. Talks to remove trade barriers between the United States and the European Union’s 28 member states had been bubbling away nicely. An independent report suggested the planned Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP — pronounced T-Tip — would benefit the European Union by 119 billion euro a year and the United States by 95 billion euro. Seen as a win-win, it was on target for a 2014 signing.
Cut to Australia in 2011, and the federal government has introduced its groundbreaking plain-packaging laws, the world’s first legislation to remove branding from cigarette boxes. Europe, which was drafting tobacco legislation of its own at the time, seriously considered following suit (although it eventually backed away from mandatory plain packaging).
The wake-up call came a few months later, when Philip Morris Asia Limited — the Asian arm of the American tobacco producer — took the Australian government to the international Permanent Court of Arbitration using the investor-state dispute settlement mechanism, or ISDS, embedded in Australia’s bilateral investment treaty with Hong Kong. As the case wove its way into European consciousness, the soul-searching began.
ISDSs had been seen as a necessary element of broader EU investment deals — there’s one in the recently signed trade deal between Canada and the European Union, for instance — and had raised few concerns. The Philip Morris case placed this legal provision front and centre of the debate, leaving the European Commission scrambling to allay the fears of the public and deal with the media backlash.
An ISDS is a provision in a trade or investment treaty that explicitly grants companies or investors the right to force a government before a domestic court or a specially created international arbitration tribunal if it has breached the terms of the treaty. Governments can then be held responsible — and financially liable — if the legal action is successful.
Monique Goyens, the tough-talking Belgian director-general of the European Consumers’ Organisation, says she only learned of ISDSs seven months ago. “And I have been a lawyer for over 30 years,” she told me in her Brussels office.
Goyens sees no need for an additional legal mechanism to deal with disputes that could be resolved through routine court action. “Australia is a developed country which has a very good judicial system,” she said. “There is no reason why, if there is a problem [with trade], it should not be challenged before a court, or a corporate arbitration court.”
“It’s very ambitious in its aim to tackle non-tariff barriers to trade, which includes regulation …”
The quality of Western countries’ own legal systems is an important part of the argument advanced by Goyens and other ISDS opponents. That’s because traditionally ISDSs have been included in investment deals with developing countries in which the legal system can be politicised. Clear legal guarantees needed to be built into investment treaties because taking action in local courts was not seen as an option.
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