Should the country sacrifice long-term public health interests and sovereign rights to issue public interest laws and regulations for the short-term monetary gains of big business?
This is the question the Commerce Ministry must ponder when negotiating Thailand's bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) with the European Union (EU). Now that parliament has approved the draft framework of the Thai-EU FTA, all eyes are now on the ministry as to how it will protect the national interest amid concerns raised by public health authorities and civic groups that big business interests will prevail over the common good.
The Thai-EU FTA is a comprehensive free trade package which will have significant impacts on drug prices, farming costs and the government's sovereign right to issue public interest policies. Yet the Department of Trade Negotiations (DTN) decided to keep its draft framework a secret. It was under this secrecy that the Thai-EU FTA draft framework was sent to parliament in December last year.
Only after a warning by the Council of State, the government's legal arm, that sponsoring an international trade agreement without public consultation is against the constitution, did the DTN hold a hasty so-called public hearing. Interestingly, the meeting took place only two days after the DTN had posted the Thai-EU FTA draft framework on its website.
Then, on Tuesday, a motion on Thai-EU FTA draft framework was moved up on parliament's schedule so it could be debated quickly without closer scrutiny of the complex free trade package. The Pheu-Thai dominated parliament passed the motion, which will enable talks to continue. Why such haste? Why such secrecy?
The reason is obvious. Thailand's trade privileges with the EU under the Generalised System of Preferences, or GSP, will expire at the end of next year.
The government wants to sustain good export figures by maintaining GSP privileges. The export industry wants to seal the deal quickly to safeguard its profits. It is clear who the likely winners are in this bilateral FTA. It is also clear who the losers are.
Despite the secrecy over the Thai-EU FTA, previous bilateral free trade deals between the EU and other countries show similar patterns and indicate what is in store for Thailand. For starters, Thailand will be asked to agree to provisions that go beyond our obligations to the World Trade Organisation (WTO), particularly on intellectual property rights. The drug patent terms under the WTO's Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (Trips) will probably be extended to 25 years.
Like other EU-FTA partners, we will have less access to clinical trial data on the safety and efficacy of medicine even when there is no patent involved. The production of cheaper generic drugs to save lives _ allowed under Trips _ will become extremely difficult, if not possible. The results will be much more expensive medicines, loss of lives _ and higher profits for transnational pharmaceutical giants, of course.
That's not all. The EU FTA also pushes for an investor-state dispute system whereby foreign investors can sue governments for issuing public interest laws and regulations perceived to hurt their profits. This could bring an end to programmes to cut drinking and smoking, for example. The stakes are high and the Commerce Ministry must make sure Thailand will not accede to the EU demands beyond our obligations to the WTO. It is the only way trade negotiators can reassure us that they are defending the common good, not big business.