One of the (many) problems with corporate sovereignty provisions in treaties is that their practical effects are highly unpredictable. Unlike courts operating in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) tribunals are not obliged to take into account precedents set in previous hearings. Essentially, they can come to more or less any decision — one, moreover, against which there is no real appeal. That means the inclusion of ISDS in TAFTA/TTIP and TPP is giving hostages to fortune: nobody can honestly say that they know how things will work out later on.
Writing on the International Economic Law and Policy Blog, Simon Lester has raised an intriguing — and deeply troubling — possibility in this context. He points to a pro-TPP piece that appeared in the Washington Post recently. It includes the following point:
[Qualcomm’s] substantial share of the Chinese chip market attracted the attention of the Chinese government, which proceeded to extract $1 billion in fines for alleged anti-competitive practices. In the U.S., where Qualcomm also sells its chipsets, the company has faced no such anti-trust penalties.
Under current trade law, Qualcomm has little recourse to appeal its treatment by the Chinese government. Under a trade agreement with China like the TPP, however, Qualcomm and other U.S. companies would have access to an investor-state dispute settlement mechanism.
Lester points out that if Qualcomm were indeed able to use corporate sovereignty provisions to fend off anti-trust actions, it would be very big:
The suggestion that ISDS could be used against antitrust/competition policy actions was something I hadn’t thought of before. Would this mean that, in the future, Microsoft or Google could use ISDS in the TTIP — if that happens — to challenge the various European actions taken against them? And could a foreign investor bring an ISDS claim based on an action not taken against one of its competitors?
As he says, not only might large companies use ISDS to contest anti-trust actions against themselves, they might also use it to put pressure on governments to bring anti-trust actions against their competitors. This emphasizes not only how ISDS could take governments into completely uncharted waters for anti-trust actions, but also that there are even more ways in which corporate sovereignty could undermine a nation’s ability to set and implement policy. That’s another good reason to remove it from trade agreements before it causes this kind of serious damage to the fabric of democracy.