Investigating Power: Corporations and TTIP

How can we apply an actor centred understanding of power to the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the influence of business actors working to push for TTIP?

In a recent article in Politics, I outlined an actor-centred framework for investigating power. Building on the work of Lukes and Gaventa, I divide power into visible (decision-making and the control of resources), hidden (backdoor machinations and institutional organisation) and invisible power (the creation and use of discourse) in a manner that aims to reconcile material and discursive power, to include both agency and structure and to consider the power of actors working outside the formal political arena. The particular advantage of such a framework is that its three analytic lenses allow a nuanced broader picture of how power is operating to be sketched, particularly when interactions between the different forms of power are considered. While the discussion in my article is primarily theoretical, the purpose of the article is very much practical – it is a framework designed to help guide investigations of power and, as such, offers several ways of both discussing and recognising power.

In light of the practical nature of the framework, this post serves to (very briefly) apply the understanding of power sketched in the article to the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the influence of business actors working to push for TTIP. TTIP is a proposed treaty between the EU and US that would serve to embed and to further existing rules of the international trade system and is particularly focused on reducing non-tariff barriers (NTBs) to trade, primarily regulations. While a trans-Atlantic trade agreement has been seriously discussed since the 1990s, TTIP gained impetus from the stalling of the Doha round of World Trade Organisation negotiations and the economic damage caused by the global financial crisis. Working in both a less international forum and in a time of economic crisis has meant that major corporations have seen TTIP as a key opportunity to push global trading rules further in their favour.

Visible Power

Exploiting their large financial and legal resources, businesses have lobbied on the issue of TTIP both intensively and extensively, and the issue of lobbying is the most frequently focused upon by the commenting public. In terms of intensity, as Corporate Europe Observatory outline, between January 2012 and April 2013, 92% of encounters with the EU Commission on the issue of TTIP were with business lobbyists, in comparison to 4% for public interest groups. The messages have largely been ones of support but with a push for better terms, as this quote from a leaked letter from the Director General of BusinessEurope to MEPs shows:

“European business welcomes that the draft resolution gives a positive message to the conclusion [of TTIP]…[however] we warn against overloading EU’s trade agenda with sustainability objective that are unachievable and request that efficient and reliable instruments to enforce Investors’ rights are put in place.”

In terms of extent, business has lobbied national governments that make up the EU as well as the EU itself, giving them another avenue for influence. Both Germany and the UK, for instance, following lobbying have been advocates of their financial industries’ interests – although in addition to lobbying we can also link Anglo-German advocacy to the perceived importance of these industries to the respective national economies.

Hidden Power

To paraphrase Schattschneider, business interests have been actively organised into TTIP discussions while other interests have been organised out, which has been most clearly documented in the manufacture of claims of the benefits of TTIP.  Several authors have outlined how reports with conclusions used to promote TTIP – most notably the headline figure that TTIP would benefit the economies of EU and US by an annual €119bn and €95bn respectively – have very shaky foundations. Among the numerous criticisms, the models the reports used focused on quantifiable benefits from reducing regulatory NTBs, but actively ignored (that is, did not methodologically allow) social and environmental costs that would come from reducing regulations. In this manner, corporate claims of the economic benefits of TTIP (and the contribution to society from corporations) were actively reinforced, but the social, political and environmental costs were further marginalised and excluded from consideration.

Invisible Power

Business has been empowered by the broad neoliberal discursive currents that are the current political orthodoxy. Specifically in terms of TTIP, the agreement is being sold and justified as the “liberalisation” and “freeing” of trade. Yet, unlike previous agreements, TTIP is not primarily a reduction of tariffs or other traditionally-considered impediments to free trade. Instead, the main focus of TTIP is the reduction of NTBs through the mutual recognition of regulations – that is, allowing business to meet either EU or US regulations. As regulations generally restrict what business can do, and the mutual recognition of regulations will likely promote corporations meeting whichever are the less onerous regulations from either side of the Atlantic, this extension of “free trade” to regulatory matters has served to align business interests (lower regulation) with claims of freedom. More importantly, this discourse has also worked to depoliticise inherently political matters concerning social, political and environmental issues that regulations often serve to protect by pushing these issues into the economic sphere and subjecting them to a purely economic logic (which also goes some way to explaining how and why the TTIP-supportive reports mentioned above ever got made and were seen as authoritative).


With TTIP we are seeing corporate power manifest in a number of ways, which involves direct action by the corporations, actions that benefit corporations and a hugely supportive discourse that positions corporate interests as positive and politically-neutral. While the account presented here of what’s happening is all too brief, its central point – and a central point of my journal article – is that recognising and exploring the diversity of the mechanisms of influence that organisations (such as corporations) can utilise is key to understanding – and potentially combatting – the power of these organisations. With TTIP, failure to recognise this diversity can lead to too great a focus on the most obvious and galling elements – lobbying and the opacity of negotiations – to the detriment of exploring more backroom machinations and an ideology that serves to normalise and depoliticise inherently political discussions. Both a broader, and more granular, analysis of power can help with understanding such issues, and my framework is a means to help such analyses.

This post was by Terry Hathaway, University of Sheffield. He can be found on twitter as @Terry_Hathaway.

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