the dismissal of the case on procedural grounds means that we will never get a ruling on the substance of Philip Morris’ claims. As such, the award contributes nothing to the bigger debate about the conflict between investment protection and public policy.
The US government and European Commission insist that the inclusion of a corporate sovereignty chapter in the TAFTA/TTIP treaty will not in any way diminish the ability of nations to pass laws as they wish. A fascinating case involving an investment in Romania shows why that’s just not true. It concerns a state aid scheme instituted by Romania to attract investments in the country, which offered tax breaks or refunds of customs duties on raw materials. The scheme was supposed to remain in place for 10 years. But as part of Romania’s accession to the EU, it was required to cancel this scheme, which was regarded by the European Commission as providing unfair state aid. So, obediently, Romania abolished the scheme in 2005, some years earlier than it had promised.
That didn’t go down too well with investors. Two of them were able to use the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) clauses of a bilateral treaty between Sweden and Romania to sue the latter. Here’s what happened next, as described in the European Commission’s press release:
An arbitral award of December 2013 found that by revoking an investment incentive scheme in 2005, four years prior to its scheduled expiry in 2009, Romania had infringed a bilateral investment treaty between Romania and Sweden. The arbitral tribunal ordered Romania to compensate the claimants, two investors with Swedish citizenship, for not having benefitted in full from the scheme.
Just part of the price of joining the European Union, you might think. But the European Commission is unhappy that compensation has been paid:
By paying the compensation awarded to the claimants, Romania actually grants them advantages equivalent to those provided for by the abolished aid scheme. The Commission has therefore concluded that this compensation amounts to incompatible state aid and has to be paid back by the beneficiaries.
That is, both the original state aid and the subsequent compensation for not providing that aid for the full term of the agreement are regarded as forbidden under EU law. So the European Commission is ordering Romania somehow to pull back from the Swedish investors the compensation awarded by the ISDS tribunal. Leaving aside the difficulty of doing so, even if Romania manages that, it will then be in breach of the corporate sovereignty tribunal ruling, which could leave it open to further legal action, and further awards against it. On the other hand, if it doesn’t rescind the compensation, it will be fined by the European Commission.
This provides a perfect demonstration of how corporate sovereignty provisions in treaties take away the ability of national governments to act freely. Moreover, in this particular case, whatever Romania chooses to do, its people will suffer financially.
For years now, we’ve been warning about the problematic “ISDS” — “investor state dispute settlement” mechanisms that are a large part of the big trade agreements that countries have been negotiating. As we’ve noted, the ISDS name is designed to be boring, in an effort to hide the true impact — but the reality is that these provisions provide corporate sovereignty, elevating the power of corporations to put them above the power of local governments. If you thought “corporate personhood” was a problem, corporate sovereignty takes things to a whole new level — letting companies take foreign governments to special private “tribunals” if they think that regulations passed in those countries are somehow unfair. Existing corporate sovereignty provisions have led to things like Big Tobacco threatening to sue small countries for considering anti-smoking legislation and pharma giant Eli Lilly demanding $500 million from Canada, because Canada dared to reject some of its patents noting (correctly) that the drugs didn’t appear to be any improvement over existing drugs.
As we noted recently, one of the most worrying aspects of corporate sovereignty chapters in trade agreements is the chilling effect that they can have on future legislation. That’s something that the supporters of this investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanism never talk about. What they do say, though, is that corporate sovereignty cannot force governments to change existing laws. A recent defeat for Canada before an ISDS tribunal proves that’s not the case:
An international trade tribunal has ordered Ottawa to pay ExxonMobil and another oil company $17.3 million, following a complaint that the companies were required to spend money in Newfoundland and Labrador on research and development.
The case was brought by ExxonMobil using the corporate sovereignty provisions in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and concerned another agreement, called the Atlantic Accord. As CBC News explains:
Under the terms of the Atlantic Accord, a federal-provincial agreement on oil development first negotiated in 1985, oil companies are required to support petroleum-focused research and development in Newfoundland and Labrador, as part of its local benefits package.
In other words, three decades ago, Canadian politicians had passed a research and development package, one of whose measures was designed to boost local employment — exactly the kind of thing that voters want their politicians to do. But the ISDS tribunal ruled that under NAFTA, this was not permitted, and awarded substantial damages to ExxonMobil for being required to comply with the Atlantic Accord. But it gets worse:
Unless the governments of Canada and Newfoundland and Labrador agree to change the R&D legislation, Ottawa could be on the hook for continued damages. The federal government is responsible because NAFTA is an agreement between sovereign nations.
That is, the corporate sovereignty provisions in NAFTA are being used to force the Canadian government to change existing and long-standing legislation — something that ISDS fans assure us never happens.
Now countries can try to counteract the influence of that kind of marketing, but if tobacco companies feel threatened, they’ll put them through legal hell. Let me take you on a world tour of how they attack laws intended to protect public health, because it’s kind of amazing.
Let’s start in Australia. In 2011, they passed a plain packaging law, and what that means is this. [Shows (fair use!) news clip describing required packaging of cigarettes with no branding, and scary health pictures]. Australia’s plain packaging law bans tobacco company branding from packaging and replaced it with upsetting photos, such as the toe tag on a corpse, the cancerous mouth, the nightmarish eyeball, or the diseased lung. Now, yes, I’m pretty sure I’d find a healthy lung disgusting, but, that thing does look like you’re trying to breathe through baked ziti, so [instructing staff] take it down! Just take it down!
Perhaps unsurprisingly, since this law was implemented, total consumption of tobacco cigarettes in Australia fell to record lows and… nightmares about eyeballs have risen to record highs. [Instructing staff] Take it down! Take down the demon eye!
To get these laws, though, Australia has had to run a gamut of lawsuits. First, two tobacco companies sued Australia in its highest court to stop them. The result, was a little surprising, as Australia’s attorney general let everyone know. [Shows clip of AG announcing not just the victory, but Big Tobacco having to pay the government’s legal fees.] Yes! Score one for the little guy! Even if that little guy is the sixth largest country in the world by landmass.
And the tobacco companies didn’t just lose. The judges called their case “delusive,” “unreal and synthetic” and said their case had “fatal defects.” ….
But Australia’s legal troubles were just beginning. Because then, Philip Morris Asia got involved. [Shows clips of a news report saying Philip Morris considering using ISDS provisions to take the Australian government to a tribunal claiming it lowered the value of the company’s trademarks].
That’s right. A company was able to sue a country over a public health measure, through an international court. How the fuck is that possible? Well, it’s really a simple explanation. They did it by digging up a 1993 trade agreement between Australia and Hong Kong which had a provision that said Australia couldn’t seize Hong Kong-based companies’ property. So, nine months before the lawsuits started, PMI put its Australian business in the hands of its Hong Kong-based Philip Morris Asia division, and then they sued, claiming that the “seized property” in question, were the trademarks on their cigarette packages.
And you’ve got to give it to them: that’s impressive. Someone should really give those lawyers a pat on the back… and a punch in the face. But, a pat on the back first. Pat, then punch. Pat, punch….