By Pongphon Sarnsamak
Even though the first round of negotiations in Brussels on a Thailand-European Union Free Trade Agreement (Thai-EU FTA) were as smooth as silk, but observers say the second round - in Thailand later this month - will be much tougher.
The event will face strong opposition from more than 2,000 people from various civic groups nationwide. They will include medical patients, consumers and farmers protesting against unfair arrangements to be discussed under the FTA – such as an extension of drug patents from 20 years to 30, which would increase the price of pharmaceutical products and make them unaffordable for many Thais.
The negotiations were officially launched on March 6 by European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
The first round took place in Brussels from May 27-31. Negotiating teams discussed a wide range of areas including goods, rules of origin, services and investment, public procurement, competition, intellectual property, trade remedies, and trade and sustainable development.
Negotiations are expected to conclude in less than two years. Thai exports to the EU will enjoy lower taxes under the Generalised System of Preferences (GPS) until 2015, if the FTA can be concluded.
The next round of talks will be held in Chiang Mai, from September 16-20.
Even though the Thai-EU FTA will boost economic growth for both sides, Thailand could fall into a trap in the field of public health, Nimitr Tian-udom, director of the Aids Access Foundation, said.
“The EU’s proposals under this FTA exceed the World Trade Organisation’s regulations and would take advantage of Thailand instead of creating benefits for both sides,” he warned.
In the negotiations, the EU has pressed Thailand to speed up its registration process – to issue patents for drug products as fast as it can. If the EU decides the process of issuing patents is too slow, it will extend patent terms for drug products, or will use the “ever-greening” of patents, to allow European drug makers to register a new product with old formulas that undergo small adjustments.
“If we accept these proposals, we would be committing suicide, as we would no longer be able to access cheap medicines,” Nimitr said.
Moreover, local drug makers would face difficulties producing generic drug products. The EU would require Thailand to tighten measures to protect data related to these pharmaceutical products when they are submitted for the registration process, the so-called “data exclusivity”.
Thai authorities would also be asked to arrest suspected counterfeit pharmaceutical products being sold along the border without any investigation to find out whether the products were fake or not.
Meanwhile, merchants making suspected counterfeit products would be listed as criminals.
And European investors would be allowed to file a complaint to arbitrators if they find that the government’s regulations affect their businesses.
According to Nimitr, India would be a good model for Thailand when it negotiates with the EU – as India did not fall into such traps. It did not accept an extension of drug patent terms, because they would have destroyed generic drug makers and their pharmaceutical businesses, the world’s largest suppliers of generic drugs.
Nimitr, however, believed the Thai negotiators would stick to their standing point of not accepting the EU proposal, which would destroy not only access to life-saving drugs for tens of thousands of Thais but also local pharmaceutical industries.
“Even if free trade is unavoidable, it must be fair enough [for all] to agree to,” he said.