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29 May 2014
Talks get ‘technical’ as negotiators push harder issues to 2015
Amidst Europe-wide electioneering last week, EU and US negotiators met in Virginia, Washington for round 5 of TTIP talks. There were low expectations that this round would garner any front-page news, as both sides looked to the long list of technical issues that need to be worked through in order to achieve the ambitious deal they’re aiming for. Having received a palpable increase in attention in recent months in Europe in the run up to the elections, the biggest political roadblocks seem to have been kicked into the long grass, a move that they may hope will serve to quieten the debate in the months ahead:
‘One business source said this week that both the U.S. government and European Commission have conveyed the message that their negotiations on TTIP this year are focused on technical work that is required to lay the groundwork for tackling the big political issues in 2015.’ - [Inside US Trade]
The EU Chief Negotiator Ignacio Garcia Bercero along with his US counterpart Dan Mullaney held a press conference last Friday to summarise the week of talks. Deciphering any concrete progress has proved a challenge, as both men have perfected a diplomatic script so vague that it sometimes seems they’re saying nothing at all. Couched language hides a lack of progress with sentences like "hoping of advancing soon to some common understanding of how a chapter might look like.” But here are the crucial points as we see them.
Some points to consider:
Move toward consolidated texts may mean more transparency concerns
On Friday Bercero announced that both sides are working on a text-basis in 4 key areas: technical barriers to trade (TBTs), competition, state-to-state dispute settlement, while also agreeing to include a chapter on SMEs for the first time. Recent reports have suggested that this represents the first attempt to move away from proposals tabled by each side, to taking tentative steps toward consolidated EU-US texts. However, that may disguise the vast work needed to conclude such chapters, with both sides at odds on crucial issues like TBTs.
Even so, consolidated draft texts are likely to begin appearing over the months ahead, with negotiations having now reached the year mark. This could raise yet more transparency issues as it is unclear who will have access to any of the joint EU-US position texts once they begin to be written. To date, virtually nothing is known about the US proposals and there has only been some limited access to EU proposals for members of the Council, INTA members, some other committee chairs in the European Parliament, and members of the new advisory group. Even these EU texts may prove irrelevant if negotiators begin working from joint US-EU texts. US plans for a reading room arrangement, whereby limited 'read only' access will granted in specified locations around Europe, has been rejected as unacceptable by Member States to date.
Regulatory cooperation will be a mixed bag
Some efforts have been made on reaching the objectives for sectorial regulatory cooperation in the areas of medical devices, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, information and communications technologies, pesticides, chemicals and automobiles. The latter has been met with scepticism from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the US, after industry made efforts to demonstrate how some EU and US safety standards and regulation can achieve the same safety outcomes. It is also highly unlikely that chemicals will be able to achieve harmonisation or mutual recognition of standards according to Bercero, a sign that each sector will be in need of various tailored approaches.
There is also no movement on broader horizontal regulatory cooperation, which remains “challenging” according to Mullaney. The EU has rejected a US demand to change the way it develops legislation. “Officials from the commission and member state governments have rejected that demand as unrealistic and politically unfeasible” according to Inside US Trade.
"We hope that the fact that we have increasingly a better understanding about the way to move forward would make it possible for us soon to move toward a text-based discussion. That is not the case so far," Garcia Bercero said.
US offer on services, but little else.
The US have tabled a services offer, which could not be met with an EU equivalent in this round, but it is believed that both are to be based on the offers already made in the TISA agreement. There has been once again little movement on many of the areas that have gotten some press in recent weeks. There is no common understanding on whether to include a chapter on energy and raw materials, a key objective of the EU and despite reports about the environmental impact of doing so. Similarly, the US position on financial services has not changed, with Mullaney noting that financial services should be discussed at “appropriate international fora”, and not within the context of TTIP. On procurement, the US intend on submitting an offer before the autumn, though it is widely expected not to include the politically sensitive state-level access the EU desires.
Tariff reduction debate not stacking up
The war of words on tariffs looks set to continue too. In February the US received criticism for a tariff-reduction offer of only 69%, in stark contrast to the EU offer of 95%. Commissioner De Gucht spoke publicly that such a low offer could not even form the basis of an agreement. Yet, last week the US chief negotiator repeated the US objective for the “elimination of all tariffs to open up the markets on both sides to the maximum extent possible”. But at the same time, a newly revised US ‘informal’ offer, due in mid-May, has not been forthcoming. This follows on from an earlier criticism by the US that the EU’s offer of 95% was not good enough, as it did not include tariff elimination for pork and beef. A strangely disjointed approach, given that their initial offer of 69% still stands, and likely to be a bone of contention going forward.
US meat saga persists
While on the topic of pork and beef, the US meat industry took advantage of the talks being on their side of the pond by engaging on the touchy topic of US meat exports with EU officials. The American Meat Institute reiterated its priorities for TTIP, which include:
‘…addressing the EU's hormone ban together with its prohibition on the use of the growth-promoting drug ractopamine … ensuring exclusive U.S. beef access under the high-quality beef quota… addressing the ban on pathogen reduction treatments used on meat products; removing the tariff and TRQ barriers to U.S. pork products; addressing "unnecessary testing" for pork entering the EU; and ensuring "equivalent treatment of U.S. poultry … in a commercially meaningful manner.’ [Inside U.S. Trade - 05/23/2014]
These key priorities were strongly rebuked by the Commission’s Directorate-General for Health and Consumers, who said that such goals have “no possibility to be taken on board” by the EU, and suggested that the industry consider more reasonable requests.
Although it is welcome news that the EU is maintaining its stance on such issues, the US continue to push the need for “science and risk” assessments with respect to food safety and sanitary and phytosanitary measures. As I’ve covered in past blog posts, this is a direct effort to undermine the EU’s precautionary principal by expressing the need for ‘sound science’ in such assessments, something which ‘has become Orwellian double-speak for various forms of pro-business spin’ according to Colin Macilwain of Nature.
The next round
The negotiating teams meet again in Brussels for round 6 from July 14 - 18. Luckily for them, the European Parliament, whose new members represent a cacophony of views on TTIP and who will be equally as vocal on the issue in the coming legislature, will be sitting in Strasbourg during those dates. Coincidence? Surely not.