19 May 2014

Proponents push back as TTIP enters 5th round

Negotiators meet in Virginia this week while Europe heads to the polls

Simon McKeagney, Editor

Today sees the beginning of the 5th round of negotiations in Arlington, Virginia, following a doubling-up of efforts by proponents in Europe and the US and despite few positive movements from either side. Weeks of high-level lobbying in support of a comprehensive deal has seen Chancellor Merkel in Washington, and the US Trade Representative tour capitals in Europe to hammer home the case for an agreement. But such efforts have also been coupled with intense public opposition by civil society, notably in Germany over the weekend

The 5th round comes as EU Member States prepare to head to the polls to elect a new European Parliament this week. TTIP will feature high on the agenda for the new Parliament, who will ultimately have the final say in accepting or rejecting the deal in the coming legislature. That has not stopped Commissioner De Gucht from criticising MEPs for making TTIP an election issue. Two leading candidates for Commission president have criticised the talks for continuing during the European elections, which follows on from earlier calls by all groups in the Parliament to ensure all EU standards and regulations are protected in TTIP. 

A new Parliament is just one of the issues that could slow down the momentum of the talks. A shake-up of Commissioners in the autumn, as well as mid-term elections in the US in November is likely to also impede progress further, with hopes of concluding a deal by the end of 2014 a distant memory. 

“Very, very difficult”

Disagreements over sanitary and phytosanitary standards (SPS) is a key bone of contention for the US at this time, resulting in slower-than-expected outcomes at this stage. According to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack the talks are “not really about market access. It's really more about some of the regulations and the SPS issues that are very, very difficult.”

The wane in momentum has not gone unnoticed by business lobbies, who have issued a series of warnings to negotiators to step up their game. Business Europe and the American Chamber of Commerce issued a joint statement stating that a ‘rapid conclusion of a comprehensive and ambitious Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) agreement is more important than ever.’ 

At last week’s European Business Summit, where the mass arrests of peaceful TTIP protestors sparked outrage, the US Ambassador and Commissioner De Gucht were on the offensive, criticising NGOs, civil society and the Greens ‘who they accused of spreading “lies” through “social media.”

“There’s a void”

Ambassador Gardner is also quoted by Euractiv as saying “There’s a void [in information]. The void is being filled more and more by social media.” Ironically, this came on the same day the EU Council refused to publish the EU TTIP mandate, leaving many to question the commitment both sides have to transparent negotiations. Little is also known about the US positions in the majority of areas being discussed in TTIP, though requests on inclusions from business interests on both sides of the Atlantic are widely known. This "void" can only be rectified by a concerted effort for greater transparency from both negotiating teams. 

The 4th round, held in Brussels in March, showed that the ‘honeymoon’ period had come to an abrupt end, with diverging opinions showing through for the first time, and public displays of disappointment on issues like tariff offers. Little is expected of the 5th round with Politico reporting a senior U.S. trade official as saying both sides ‘are unlikely to exchange new offers on tariffs, services or government procurement’. 

Financial services has also become a sticking point for negotiating teams. The EU are adamant that financial services is part of a final deal, but this was largely ruled out last week by the US Ambassador to the EU, who remain reluctant to sign any agreement that may undermine new financial regulation in the US, such as the Dodd Frank Law. The Commission do not agree with this assessment. 

“People have the right to know”

Attempts to undermine civil society concerns by Commissioner De Gucht and the negotiating teams have included efforts to marginalise those issues to “part of the left side of the political spectrum”, while at the same time doing little to address the hundreds of NGOs, consumer groups, and trade unions that have raised legitimate worries.

Last week 178 NGOs wrote an open letter to Ambassador Froman and Commissioner De Gucht expressing their deep concern about proposals for "regulatory cooperation” and the reduction of non-tariff trade barriers, noting that ‘these perceived barriers are also the laws that protect people, the environment, and the integrity of our respective economies.’

While only today, a further 250 civil society groups wrote to the Commissioner calling for full transparency and demanding ‘the publication of the negotiating mandate, all documents submitted by the European Union during the negotiations, and the negotiating texts themselves’. 

Magda Stoczkiewicz, director for Friends of the Earth Europe said: “These negotiations have the potential to impact upon many aspects of life for citizens here and in the US, from food or chemical safety to the environment. The European Commission cannot continue to remain deaf to civil society calls for transparency – people have the right to know what’s at stake.”

As negotiators descend on Arlington today, the latest high profile figure to come out for more transparency in US trade talks is popular Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. During a speech at Public Citizen’s annual gala in Washington DC last Wednesday, she remarked:

“From what I hear, Wall Street, pharmaceuticals, telecom, big polluters and outsourcers are all salivating at the chance to rig the deal in the upcoming trade talks. So the question is, Why are the trade talks secret? You’ll love this answer. Boy, the things you learn on Capitol Hill,” Warren said. “I actually have had supporters of the deal say to me ‘They have to be secret, because if the American people knew what was actually in them, they would be opposed.’”

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Pascoe Sabido

Unfortunately the links in the article don't work - they go to an EP webmail log-in instead. Would be great if they could be fixed.

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