21 October 2014

Interim Agreement: gone but not forgotten

While negotiators still publicly back a ‘comprehensive’ deal, dropping the Italian proposal may not be the end of the story

Simon McKeagney, Editor

The Italian Presidency’s proposal to go for an “interim agreement” for TTIP, announced in early September by Carlo Calenda (pictured, right) was promptly and unceremoniously nipped in the bud by the US and Commission almost as fast as it had been proposed. What a pity.
The proposal represented the first realistic rethink to take place on TTIP in Brussels, since talks began over a year ago. It stripped out many of the controversial issues, from the investment protection chapter, to regulatory coherence. And though the inclusion of federal level procurement made it difficult for the US to accept, the message was obvious. The Italians stuck their neck out and called it for what it was: TTIP negotiations are at a standstill, bogged down by a host of toxic issues that have pricked the ears of a now wide-awake public, who have no intention of letting their concerns be drowned out by the continued ineffective spin.
Rumours that the 8th round of talks may now be delayed until the new year, as well as an internal fight of sorts bubbling away between the incoming President Juncker and the outgoing (and outspoken) Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht on ISDS have only created more uncertainty. Any political capital that TTIP did once have has been drained away by leaks, protests and outcry over ongoing transparency blunders, including the sight of MEPs having to protest inside their own Parliament over access to TTIP documents.
Even former high-ranking DG Trade staff, such as Pierre Defraigne has penned essays lambasting the agreement’s intentions, while former Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy has lamented where negotiators “went wrong”.  So, why the animosity toward a sound proposal to cut their losses while they still can?
The TTIP-Lite Kite
The US and Commission were forced into a defensive position when Italy flew the TTIP-lite kite, claiming that only a comprehensive agreement (where big trade-offs in different areas could be achieved) would work. The Council, under Italy’s leadership, has elbowed its way into the picture by asserting such a starkly different opinion to the Commission. We also know that the Council is nervous- releasing the EU mandate less than 48 hours before mass protests across Europe. Unlike the Commission, members of the Council have voters to go home to. If awareness continues to grow at the pace it has in 2014, then everyone is in for a rough ride over the next 12 months on TTIP. Despite the ditching of Italy’s proposal so soon, in reality, a slimmed down end product may be considered the only viable final outcome in the end.
Why? The conversation has already moved to include “a swift conclusion” to the talks in 2015, on account, most likely, of the 2016 US presidential election. This is despite the little progress to date, and the huge task left ahead to conclude the largest trade deal ever attempted. But no side wants to see TTIP dragged through an election cycle only to come out the other side and be the first against the wall under a new administration. 
In the EU, Juncker has expressly made clear that he has one chance to stem the flow of anti-EU sentiment, which is sinking the European project as a whole. A deal hatched behind closed doors and delivered unchanged at the end, despite everything, sounds as crazy as it is. Sometime soon, compromises must be made, or Juncker's plans to reboot the EU's image is lost. The latest rumours that he is considering ditching ISDS is a welcome move, but it is also piecemeal. TTIP's brand is irreversibly damaged, and as we said 8 months ago, the host of other concerns around the rest of the content will not be eliminated by just giving up ISDS as the sacrificial lamb.
If negotiators are serious about getting something done in 2015, then it is hard to see how without embracing a variation of the TTIP-lite proposal they’ve just snubbed. And though TTIP-lite might seem like a victory for campaigners, be warned- reducing the lofty goals to something more manageable could just mean creating the ‘living agreement’ that was always envisioned, sooner than expected. In other words - get something signed and agreed to - then figure out the small print later when the public is paying less attention.


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