BlogBACK TO OVERVIEW
16 July 2014
A political issue whose time has come
Yesterday evening’s parliamentary debate on TTIP was a sight that few Commission trade officials have witnessed for a trade portfolio. Lasting for 3 hours and with over 50 interventions, barely a kind word was to be found in the Strasbourg chamber. It was not long ago that DG Trade could quietly get on with its business, undisturbed by the comings and goings of the public, their opinions, or that of their representatives. Those days seem to have come to an abrupt end.
If MEPs are angry, worried or unhappy, they are representative of the wider issue: no one is particularly happy with how the Commission is handling TTIP. We know that Member States are up in arms about their own lack of access to key negotiation documents. We know citizens and national politicians are beginning to wake up to the many threats it poses, and now we know that MEPs are preparing for a fight on transparency.
“If you have nothing to fear from the reactions of people, then come away from the secrecy shrouding negotiations and let the sun in.” said Patrick Le Hyaric, one of a host of voices carrying the same message. It is no longer a debate about whether you are for or against TTIP. All sides of the political spectrum are essentially telling the Commission the same thing; the “trust me” line is no longer a good enough answer. We need to know what this deal contains.
Room 4C18 in Brussels
The issue of transparency has been crystallised in the Parliament by the setting up of a restricted ‘Reading Room’ for key TTIP documents, only viewable for a handful of select MEPs, most of whom are sitting on the INTA committee. Yannick Jadot described the decision as “illegal” as the way in which the European Parliament and national governments are being informed about the content of the negotiations is “absolutely counter to the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union”, an argument detailed in an extensive article by Heidi Hautala last week. The chair of the INTA committee, Bernd Lange, agreed, saying that setting up a “secret room where everyone doesn’t have access, is not possible.”
Asking the Trade Commissioner if he could understand that there were indeed justified criticisms, Reinhard Bütikofer summed up the frustrations felt by many:
“I’m not a member of INTA. I’m a member of the US delegation of the European Parliament, a member of the Transatlantic legislative dialogue and I can’t go to room 4C18 in Brussels to look at these documents. [My colleague from the Greens] Mr. Jadot, who has been there, I can’t even ask him what he has seen. Thats not enough. Thats not sufficient. We need full access to all decisive negotiation documents. NGOs as well and civil society need the same access that the industrial lobbies have had for a long time already.”
INTA chair Bernd Lange had a lot to say on TTIP this week. At yesterday’s debate he said that it was time to take the worries of citizens seriously, and to stop dismissing them out of hand, a point echoed in his earlier TV interview on Monday. It is a direct challenge to the common responses by Trade Commissioner De Gucht’s to such concerns, which he has managed to reduce to “anti-trade” or “anti-American”, much to the frustration of many MEPs who believe their concerns are legitimate. Lange believes that the public backlash requires a ‘scaled down’ TTIP according to Inside US Trade, that would drop the controversial issues like ISDS and regulatory cooperation, and focus instead on the more traditional aspects of a free trade deal, like the lowering of tariffs:
He argued that failing to scale back the agenda would mean the TTIP negotiations will drag on beyond the end of next year and into the term of the next U.S. president. He said that creates a real possibility that the initiative will never be concluded at all. Lange noted that the EU-Canada negotiations, which do not include the broad regulatory goals currently being pursued in TTIP, have been ongoing for five years and have still not been completed.
150,000 responses to the Commission’s consultation on ISDS might be a good sign that a rethink is in order. Ska Keller warned Commissioner De Gucht that the record number of responses shows that “people throughout Europe are uncomfortable about private law that only favours and benefits large companies, and we should take this disquiet seriously.”
1 Million Signatures
Earlier yesterday afternoon, the Stop TTIP campaign formally launched the European Citizens’ Initiative on TTIP. Campaigners across Europe will be pulling out all the stops from September to raise the 1 million signatures the ECI needs to progress. That will mean more attention, more scrutiny and more questions. De Gucht will need to find better answers to the worries that confront him than "anti-trade" or "anti-Amercian". Aside from being insulting, it is also wearing thin.
It clear is that TTIP and trade policy has entered the political mainstream, and it is not going back in the box (or DG Trade) any time soon. It may get even more heated when 28 national parliaments have to to ratify TTIP in the years to come. Not paying heed to any of the mounting criticism is no longer an option. Something has to give, and soon.