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TPP Negotiators Have Narrow Window to Beat 2016 Election Calendar

Posted August 04, 2015

Hopes of finally closing the deal on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) at high-level negotiations in Hawaii were dashed last week, ultimately foundering on the familiar shoals of trade protectionism concerning market access for dairy and other products, intellectual property rights for pharmaceutical biologics and automotive rules of origin for NAFTA countries and Japan.

In a nontheless predictably upbeat joint statement following eight days of talks that ended Friday, trade officials of the 12 nations involved claimed they made “significant progress” and vowed to work further on “resolving a limited number of remaining issues,” without specifying a future meeting, although it is widely expected an effort will be made to reconvene at the end of August.

“In this last stage of negotiations, we are more confident than ever that TPP is within reach and will support jobs and economic growth,” the ministers said. Others though were not so sanguine about the deal’s prospects.

Public Citizen, an especially belligerent foe of the TPP and trade liberalization in general, issued a press release gleefully crowing about the talks’ failure. “This ministerial was viewed as a do-or-die moment to inject momentum into the TPP process, so this Maui meltdown in part reflects how controversial the TPP is in many of the involved nations and how little latitude governments feel to make concessions to get a deal,” said Lori Wallach, director of the group’s Global Trade Watch.

Backers of the deal, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, urged negotiators “to continue pressing forward toward the goal of a truly comprehensive agreement” and a “disappointed” National Association of Manufacturers said it was “hopeful this latest round of talks has identified areas of further agreement.”

One thing supporters and opponents alike do concur on, is that negotiators are running out of time to reach a comprehensive trade pact and get it ratified by the dozen participating governments. Mike Petersen, New Zealand’s special trade envoy for agriculture said there’s “probably a window of two or three weeks” this month in which to get the deal done. Talking to reporters before departing Hawaii last week, Japan’s Economy Minister Akira Amari likewise described a similarly tight timeline for future talks.

The sudden urgency in concluding a gigantic free trade deal that’s been in the works for over a decade is now being driven by expediencies of the electoral calendar; not the Canadian vote happening in mid-October or next summer’s House of Councillors election in Japan, but the political maelstrom of the U.S. presidential cycle in 2016. Unless negotiators can shortly resolve the various issues that stubbornly remain outstanding, there might not be enough time to get the trade bill through Congress before being hopelessly swamped in political partisanship.

The fast-track bill passed in June says President Obama must notify Congress 90 days before he signs it, but there are only 45 legislative days left in 2015, although the leadership can add more. Even if a finalized agreement does make it to the floor of Congress in early 2016 as the administration hopes, many lawmakers will likely be too worried about their political survival to vote for the contentious deal in an election year. Perhaps with good reason, Public Citizen ominously warns: “The intense U.S. national political battle over trade authority was just a preview of the massive opposition the TPP would face once members of Congress and the public see the specific TPP terms.”