EU Trade Ministers pledge TTIP support as talks enter next stage
EU trade ministers meeting in Athens last week pledged their full support to the ongoing trade talks with the US, as part of a broader push on both sides to allay concerns from public interest groups over the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP). With the fourth round of negotiations set to begin in less than one week, the planned agreement has received amped-up attacks from a diverse collection of critics on both sides of the Atlantic.
Following last week’s meeting of trade ministers, EU Trade Commissioner De Gucht warned that recent public discourse has featured too much “speculation” and “fear-mongering,” rather than focusing on the facts of the proposed deal.
“I welcome again the full support of all ministers and all our member states for the on-going T-TIP negotiation process,” the EU trade chief told reporters last Friday. “That said, I took the opportunity today to underline the need for the full engagement of their respective governments to explain the benefits of the T-TIP project to their respective publics.”
At the same meeting, Finnish trade minister Alexander Stubb reportedly told fellow officials from the bloc’s member states, along with business leaders from both sides, that many T-TIP opponents tend to generally be against globalisation, free trade, and multinationals.
“We have an uphill battle to make the argument that this EU-US free trade agreement is a good one,” he said, in comments reported by Reuters.
With both the EU and US working their way out of a prolonged financial crisis, advocates for T-TIP have said that the deal could provide a much-needed boost to their economies. For instance, figures cited by the EU place the increase in the bloc’s GDP at an additional 0.5 percent each year, netting an additional €275 billion in total trade per annum.
With stakes set so high, “we will have to prove that this is not a race to the bottom, but a race to the top,” BusinessEurope director general Markus Behyrer told EU officials.
Transparency, investor protections
One of the main complaints from various advocacy groups has been regarding the level of transparency in the talks. On Monday, 42 businesses and advocacy associations joined a petition by the US’ largest labour federation, the AFL-CIO, to the US Trade Representative (USTR) requesting greater transparency and the establishment of a public consultation process.
In an accompanying press release, the organisation, which represents over 12 million constituents, demanded that the US government act “at least as democratic, participatory and transparent as any other in the world.”
US government officials, for their part, have said on several occasions that there are already various opportunities for the public to provide their input into the talks, and have promised to release additional information about Washington’s negotiating objectives before next week’s round of negotiations.
US Trade Representative Michael Froman also announced last month a new initiative – the Public Interest Trade Advisory Committee – that would provide expert input into the negotiations on areas such as public health, development, and consumer safety.
Substantively, the US labour organisation is particularly opposed to investor-state dispute settlement systems, an issue that has also sparked concern in the EU. Brussels, for instance, has already pledged to publish its negotiating objectives for the investment part of the deal this month, which will be followed by a three-month public comment period.
Such investor protections, groups on both sides have warned, could give foreign corporations too much room to challenge domestic policies that are in the public interest.
At a roundtable discussion held on Monday in Westminster, British Cabinet Minister Kenneth Clarke was quick to dismiss concerns over policies such as investor-state dispute settlement mechanisms. “Contrary to what is often reported, the dispute resolution element of the proposed treaty is not a means for giant companies to get governments to lower standards,” Clarke said. The British official noted that the UK is party to 94 agreements with such provisions, but that it has yet to lose a case before an arbitration panel.
Less than a month ago, Froman met with EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht to conduct a political stocktaking of the negotiations to date. After identifying key differences between their sides’ positions, they urged negotiators to “step up a gear” as they kick off the next phase of the talks.
Despite the expected difficulties ahead, particularly as the two sides dig into the thorny subject of regulations and standards, De Gucht told reporters at the time that overall “things are on track.”
The regulatory portion of the talks – for instance, harmonising health and safety policies – is widely expected to be the toughest area to resolve. The EU official has repeatedly said that there would be “no ‘give and take’” on consumer protection, the environment, or food, in response to concerns that have been raised by NGOs and the EU public.
However, that stance has sparked concern among members of the US farm lobby, given that American agricultural producers had hoped that T-TIP negotiations would lead the EU to revise its ban on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and beef treated with hormones.
“Unless the EU is truly willing to negotiate, no deal is better than a half-baked deal,” said Steve Censky, CEO of the American Soybean Association, in comments reported last week by the Financial Times. In a speech last month, Froman said that “this is a comprehensive negotiation,” in comments apparently geared at allaying these concerns.
“We are going to have to work through this and come up with a balanced outcome,” he added.
With the talks still in their early stages, the end-date for negotiations has been pushed back, after previously being set for late 2014. While a new target date has not been set, officials have said that they hope to advance the talks quickly, in order to finish “on one tank of gas.”
Even if a pact is completed in the near-term, however, questions also linger over whether a final agreement would receive the necessary approval by lawmakers to enter into force. In Europe, the upcoming elections this spring are expected to significantly change the make-up of the European Parliament, with some warning that it could lead to an increase in members who are sceptical of the pact.
On the other side of the Atlantic, efforts to renew Trade Promotion Authority – a controversial provision that is essential for ratifying T-TIP once it is completed – are moving at a sluggish pace in Washington, as lawmakers spar over the merits of mega-regional trade deals and how involved Congress should be in actual trade negotiations.