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31 May 2016

War of words: spat over agriculture reveals EU willing to concede more than it publicly states

While accusations fly about “misleading statements”, a leaked Commission briefing confirms EU standards are at risk

Martin Häusling MEP, on behalf of the Greens/EFA Agriculture Working Group

When it comes to agriculture and food safety issues, TTIP negotiations are rapidly running into the ground. We have known for some time about the huge disparity in negotiating positions and the complete incompatibility of the "red lines" of the United States and the EU: from the EU's determination to protect its Geographical Indication labels such as feta cheese in the US, to the American interest in the EU eliminating defensive tariffs for sensitive products in which the US has an enormous economic competitive advantage, such as beef. 

Now it appears that the negotiators themselves are beginning to realise this. Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan has made several recent public remarks about his frustration at the lack of reciprocity from the US in their offers on tariffs and Sanitary and Phyto-Sanitary issues, and the lack of progress in negotiations. He obviously touched a nerve, as the US Ambassador to the EU Anthony Gardner launched a stinging private rebuke to Hogan through a letter to EU ambassadors, criticising Hogan for making "a series of misleading statements in the press." The EU's response, leaked to the EU online newsmagazine Politico, contains a point-by-point rebuttal of Gardner's accusations. It seems that the two sides are more interested at this stage at winning the public relations war over who is negotiating more honestly and fairly than actually negotiating. For those of us who believe that a TTIP agreement on agriculture and SPS rules would spell disaster for the future of the European agricultural model, the precautionary principle and our ability to keep Europe GMO-free, this is good news! 

Unsurprisingly, the leaked paper consists of a full-throated defence of the EU's negotiating position against US accusations. The EU does have a large trade surplus with the US in agricultural goods, but this is largely due to the fact that the EU exports high quality value-added processed goods in strong demand by US consumers, not easily replaceable elsewhere: indeed, if you ignore wines, spirits and beer, trade is almost fully balanced. The EU has very little access to the US market on key products like beef, poultry and dairy products (export of safe raw milk based soft cheeses of less than 60 days to the US is banned) while the  US has full access to the EU market, for example for hormone-free beef and ractopamine-free pork.  These points are not of so much interest. What is revealing are unintentional references to issues of conflict which confirm what we have suspected all along: that the EU is willing to make more concessions, particularly on SPS issues, than they are publicly willing to state. 

TTIP already changing EU law making

For instance, when the Commission changed the rules on acceptable washes of beef carcasses for hygiene purposes, to allow for lactic acid treatments, they insisted there was no connection to trade agreements.  However, in the annex to this document, under "recent steps taken to solve SPS concerns", the Commission lists "Approved lactic acid for beef carcass decontamination" - just as we always said was the case.  Lactic acid treatments were designed to clear the way for TTIP. Similarly, the document shows that the Commission has opened the door to the possibility of allowing "the use of peroxyacetic acid for the reduction of bacterial contamination during the processing of carcasses and meat of poultry".  So much for their insistence that "Nor would the EU make any change to its food safety law", stated elsewhere in the document. 

The Commission also boasts about how 21 GMOs were approved for import in 2015, to show they are taking steps to solve SPS concerns, and that "trade in soybeans...is flowing."  Similar insights are available for other issues.  The Commissions states, on tariffs, that "The EU is ready to open its dairy market and its tariff offer on the table reflects this ambition" - hardly comforting words for European milk producers facing crippling low prices which do not cover their costs of production.  And producers of GIs can be reassured that "The EU has taken a pragmatic approach on GIs (with a short list of key names, not the thousands recognised in the EU)" - so if your product is not on the list, despite being of equal legal worth within the EU, because it is not deemed lucrative enough, tough luck. 

All this is valuable evidence that we need to continue to keep a close eye on agri-food negotiations in TTIP. It comes on top of the recent Greenpeace leaked consolidated negotiating texts which showed the full extent of SPS demands from the US side. These include undermining the precautionary principle, "regulatory cooperation" on US terms, and even setting up new structures to challenge the authorisation approach based on hazard and precaution that the EU currently follows in its law-making in this area.  We were right to be cautious that relatively robust EU standards on the environment and public health are at risk. The talks may have stumbled but the stakes are high, and the consequences of "success" potentially of great concern. 

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