Wednesday, January 23, 2013

What Might a US-EU FTA Mean for International Investment Treaties?

. Wednesday, January 23, 2013

In a previous post, Will discussed how a potential US-EU free trade agreement might effect widespread trade liberalization through inclusive institutions such as the UN. Indeed, many commentators are wary of the possible deal, believing it to signal the end of inclusive negotiations that characterize the WTO (though Will provides a nice counter to such alarmist claims).

A ratified US-EU FTA also has the capacity to change international investment law quite fundamentally. At stake is whether an agreement would have an investor-state dispute clause (ISD). Unlike traditional dispute settlement mechanisms, ISDs allow firms to sue states directly, usually within the context of an international arbital board such as the International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID). ISDs are controversial primarily because there is a widespread fear that MNC with deep pockets will engage in litigation wars of attrition. Furthermore, when investors can sue states directly, governments no longer have access to diplomatic tools to smooth over disputes. And, to the extent that the long term viability of open goods and capital markets requires some flexibility to deal with domestic push-back, the removal of states as arbiters of which investment disputes are worth pursuing and which are better left ignored could have lasting negative implications for the political viability of economic openness.

Unlike some other aspects of FTAs, ISDs can actually become salient issues. In South Korea there were a series of protests against the ISD provision of the recently ratified US-South Korea FTA. Other countries, including India, South Africa, and Australia, have recently decided to nullify portions of trade and investment treaties that include ISD provisions. Still, ISDs are widespread. The model US Bilateral Investment Treaty includes an ISD provision and ISD clauses are standard in US FTAs. However, the types of treaties that contain ISD clauses tend to be signed between states characterized by economic asymmetries.* BITs are a prime example - while over 2000 such treaties exist, there are no BITs between two advanced industrial economies.

So, the question then is whether a US-EU FTA agreement will include an ISD clause. Generally, advanced industrial countries have shown they are more interested in promoting legal regimes that protect "their" MNEs while less willing to cede jurisdiction over investment disputes in which they might be a defendant. For instance, Australia has decided to drop ISD clauses from its BIT and FTA regime after it was sued by Philip Morris; Philip Morris used Australia's BIT with Hong Kong to establish ICSID jurisdiction. Given growing dissatisfaction with the costs of ISD, it will be interesting to see if such clauses would persist if the US and EU decide to not subject themselves to such extra-territorial juridical measures.

My quick, speculative take is that ISDs will be less widely used in the future. As advanced industrial economies begin to receive more FDI from emerging economies with which they have such dispute clauses, they will seek to extract themselves from such agreements. Moreover, a movement away from ISDs may be a good thing. First, ISDs tend to create duplicated layers of juridical authority that generate confusion. Second, as mentioned above, ISDs make it harder for governments to intercede in investor-state disputes in ways that allow for flexibility necessary to maintain broad coalitions of support for deep economic integration. Finally, there is some evidence that states with ISDs tend not to pursue meaningful domestic legal reforms, and thus ISDs can contribute to the persistence of partial economic reforms that ultimately impede broad-based growth.** Removing ISDs may help overcome some of these problems.

*An important semi-exception is that NAFTA includes ISD provisions. However, this clause remains quite controversial in Canada. Canada has not yet ratified the ICSID convention, reiterating the extent to which countries are quite resistant to ceding final arbital authority to an international tribunal. Additionally, the US-Australia FTA suggests, but does not require, dispute settlements between investors and states.
** A place to start reading about this: Ginsburg, Tom (2005) "International Substitutes for Domestic Institutions: Bilateral Investment Treaties and Governance" International Review of Law and Economics 25:107-123.


What Might a US-EU FTA Mean for International Investment Treaties?

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