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21 May 2014
Who is lying, Commissioner De Gucht?
In recent weeks EU Commissioner for Trade Karel De Gucht has set his targets on the Greens, who he claims are "lying" about the EU-US trade deal (TTIP). On Sunday he appeared on Flemish TV calling the Greens leading candidate José Bové a liar for his suggestion that TTIP could lead to hormone beef imports into Europe. Last week his comments at the European Business Summit in Brussels received wide coverage, not least because as he spoke 240 TTIP protestors were being kettled and arrested for peacefully demonstrating outside. De Gucht accused NGOs of spreading "complete lies" and focused on the Greens for making TTIP an election issue:
“This has now been taken over by, let’s say the left side. Not all of it, but part of the left side of the political spectrum, the Greens, and also a number of far-left groups, who see in fact the TTIP as a topic to be discussed in the European elections and beaten in the European elections.”
Aside from the fact that TTIP is likely to dominate the agenda of the next Parliament, and so is a key issue for future parliamentarians, accusing the Greens of lying is in itself in need of a response. It might play well with an audience of Brussels lobbyists who have had privileged access to the EU negotiating team from the start, but De Gucht cannot write-off the hundreds of NGOs, consumer groups and civil society organisations who have raised genuine concerns about provisions in the agreement. The Greens have raised these issues too, and so far, the response seems to be to attack anyone who dares to ask questions.
What is his word worth?
The Commissioner probably believes his own words when he says that no standards or regulations will be undermined or put at risk due to TTIP. As co-chair of the INTA committee in the European Parliament, the documents that are available to me indicate that EU negotiators are doing what they can to hold on to the promise to not negotiate on items like hormone-beef. But I also see that US pressure is strong and that the Commission is preparing for give-and-take concessions as part of these talks.
We know that 80% of gains in TTIP will come from the removal of non-tariff barriers to trade (NTBs) known to most as standards and regulation. If EU leaders are still aiming for a comprehensive agreement therefore, we see no evidence to suggest that our standards won’t be unduly impacted as a result of TTIP.
We also know that industry on both sides of the Atlantic have submitted requests for TTIP that actively call for the removal of many of these NTBs. The US Meat Export Federation for example has made it clear that they may not even support the agreement if TTIP does not address the EU ban on hormone injected beef:
'We wish to emphasize that an agreement that eliminates duties on beef and pork but leaves the EU’s hormone and ractopamine bans in place will be of limited value to the U.S beef and pork industries. This is why the way sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) issues are dealt with will ultimately determine whether the US beef and pork industries are able to support the TTIP agreement.’
The US negotiating team has indicated that tackling SPS issues remains a key priority in the deal. In any negotiation between two parties, each side is expected to give and take. TTIP is no exception to this rule.
For instance, the Commission wants a market access package that contains not only industrial and agricultural goods but also the procurement liberalization of US states. It will be difficult for the US side to deliver on state procurement, because it is in the competence of the states themselves and is politically unpopular. Is it not then legitimate to fear that the Commission may have to give on agriculture, if it wants to have something back on procurement? And this "something" could very well include beef. Even with provisions to exclude hormones, with insufficient controls in the US, can any deal really make sure that all US beef imports will be hormone free?
The EU will be expected to give ground on some issues in order to gain ground in other areas. This approach has even been confirmed by those heavily involved in the day-to-day negotiations. David O’Sullivan, the recently appointed EU Ambassador to the US said in an interview this month:
“This is a huge prize. Now, any trade agreement necessarily involves give and take because if it was only a question of Europe asking the US what we would like from them and they not being able to ask us things that they would like from us, then there’s never going to be a deal.”
This follows on from a quote from Hiddo Houben, an EU official in the trade and agriculture section of the delegation in Washington who said in April:
"We are, I think at least in political terms, going to be giving more in agriculture than we get ... and in procurement we are hoping to get more that we give, because our market is more open today. At least that's what we would argue."
The Greens have legitimate concerns that this approach could see key EU standards pawned off for minor gains in transatlantic trade. In this context, it is correct for us to assume that issues like the import of hormone beef and chlorinated chicken remain on the table, as much as the EU side and Karel De Gucht, wish they were not.
And although he may believe he is right, the Commission will change after 2 or 3 more negotiation rounds. Can we be sure that a new trade Commissioner shares the convictions of De Gucht? There will also be a new Parliament to contend with in the months ahead, as well as the various competing interests of 28 Member States, let alone a US negotiating team with their own agenda. Should we just trust him at his word? All in all, I believe our warnings are indeed justified. The more De Gucht insists that our food standards will not be compromised, the better. But he also needs to see us Greens as being vigilant, not as liars.
TTIP won't affect our regulations? It already is.
De Gucht’s Business Summit comments were an attempt to relegate the concerns of hundreds of organisations to the “far-left” of the spectrum where in his view, opinions are deemed irrelevant. But both the Greens and many of the groups he condemns are smarter than he assumes.
In the last week alone 178 NGOs wrote an open letter to Ambassador Froman and Commissioner De Gucht expressing their deep concern about proposals on 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 on Monday, a further 250 civil society groups wrote to the Commissioner calling for full transparency and demanding the publication of key negotiating documents. And today yet another pan-EU coalition of 120 organisations slammed TTIP as a threat to democracy.
This is only a snapshot of the months of requests, open letters and reports from well-established organisations who understand the impact such an agreement could have on the lives of ordinary citizens. Could such a volume of concerned groups all really be lying?
Finally, lets look at the impacts TTIP is already having. The Greens are worried that TTIP could create a ‘cooling effect’ on future legislation, as Member States and the EU institutions will be less willing to regulate for fear of being sued, or being in conflict with some TTIP provisions. The Commissioner has assured us that the deal won’t affect the way we legislate in Europe. But already Green advisors in the Parliament have noticed TTIP’s negative effect on EU lawmaking. Several proposals in the last 12 months have been disrupted, shelved or pushed through as a consequence of the pending agreement.
The Fuel Quality Directive has mysteriously vanished from the Commission’s agenda, which many believe was done so to pave the way for TTIP. In the ENVI committee, a resolution against the treatment of meats with lactic acid, something that in normal circumstances would’ve been supported, failed due to intense and unprecedented lobbying by the Commission.
Last September, the Commission presented its long-awaited proposals on meat from cloned animals. The proposals failed to cover even the simplest labelling requirements, something on which all three institutions had already agreed in principle in spring 2011. It is no secret that DG TRADE had, in order to accommodate the U.S., diluted the proposals by DG SANCO, which were already not very ambitious. TTIP strikes again. And only very recently, the European Food Safety Authority issued an overall positive assessment of peroxyacetic acid solutions as a sanitary wash for poultry carcasses and meat, something which a 2004 EU regulation prohibits, but may now form the basis of allowing such processed meat to be sold here.
The Greens, along with a host of NGOs here and in the US are raising valid issues that need to be discussed. De Gucht’s response has been to call us liars. But who is lying and for what reason? Until we see a genuine effort on the part of DG TRADE and Commissioner De Gucht to answer these concerns, the Greens will continue to ask the important questions.