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06 September 2016

TTIP: dead or dormant?

A week of ministerial criticisms have almost undone the TTIP talks. Or so we are to believe.

Simon McKeagney, Editor

The new political calendar post-summer break got off to a flying start: in less than a week, high-profile ministers from across Europe ‘coincidently’ decided to talk TTIP down. Germany’s economy minister Sigmar Gabriel got the ball rolling first when, at the end of August, he announced that “the negotiations with the United States have de facto failed, even though nobody is really admitting it.” 

Within days, the French minister for foreign trade Matthias Fekl, swiftly followed up Gabriel’s remarks with a Tweet calling for the negotiations to cease:

Hollande came next saying he would ‘withhold support from any agreement reached before the end of Barack Obama’s presidency in January’ according to the Guardian. The Dutch and the Austrians were not far behind.

Cautious celebration? 

So why now, and does this spell the end of TTIP?  For those following the negotiations closely, any celebration was tempered with strong dose of caution. Behind the scenes, coordination rather than coincidence explains last week’s theatrics. The Party of European Socialists, to which Hollande, Gabriel and Dutch minister Ploumen are members, met in Paris days before Gabriel’s comments, where one could reasonably conclude, judging from their statements, that an action plan was hatched. 

TTIP is not the only thing that has been on a continuous downward trajectory in terms of popularity as of late. Both the French Socialist Party and the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) are tanking in the polls, and both are staring into regional and national elections in the months ahead and next year. On the German side, the SPD face a grassroots insurrection from their base against TTIP and CETA, something that the party will devote their whole convention to on September 19. Hollande’s party is in a similar position, faced with Le Pen’s FN using anti-TTIP sentiment to boost her already buoyant poll numbers. 

So don’t be fooled- this sudden distaste of TTIP amongst European Socialist parties is by no means written in stone, nor it is a newfound moral stance. Read closely and you’ll find that all they are saying is that the talks are “stalled” (true) and in all likelihood will not be finalised by the time Obama leaves office (most likely true). Saying it out loud puts more pressure on the Americans to deliver something tangible soon, and the timeline over September still supports that possibility. 

As it stands, reports indicate that the US is unwilling to move on some of the EU’s core interests, and no date is set for the next negotiation round. The grumblings of European leaders may push US Trade Representative Michael Froman to change tack on some key issues when he meets Commissioner Malmström on September 16.

The same leaders could look more favourably toward continuing with TTIP by the time trade ministers meet in Bratislava on September 22-23, if things change. If there is no change, then no political capital has been lost. On top of that, playing down TTIP now has the added benefit of letting another trade deal of equally dubious content slip through unnoticed.

Nothing to lose.. except CETA.

The next act in this political calculation is the impending CETA deal, soon to be signed by Trudeau in Brussels (Oct 27) and a cause for headaches across European politics. The Greens and campaign groups in Europe and in Canada have consistently shown that provisions in CETA are as dangerous as in TTIP, not least because a majority of US multinationals will have access to the investor-protection clause, known as the “the most toxic acronym in Europe” according to Commissioner Malmström. 

The connections between TTIP and CETA have already caused considerable upset at EU level, with Juncker bowing to pressure last minute to allow Member State parliaments have a say in CETA. That will require up to 30 parliaments to vote on the elements covered by Member State competences. The rest will come down the track sooner, following agreement at Council and a vote in the European Parliament. 

Most of the ministers who are now backing away from TTIP however have not made the small leap to CETA, with the exception of Austria. This is revealing on two counts. Firstly it shows that this is not about content. How can you be in favour of CETA and against TTIP when both contain provisions dangerous to the climate, public services, and ordinary workers? 

Secondly, where the Social Democrats are concerned in the European Parliament, the SPD chair of the International Trade Committee, Bernd Lange, looks set on pushing through CETA despite some minimal objections from S&D MEPs. In a supportive paper produced by him this summer, he says that any remaining concerns over impact on public services, workers' rights, or the payment of judges under the updated investor-protection mechanism can be ironed out with some memorandums of understanding between the EU and Canada or years later during the review process. It goes without saying that such letters would have doubtful or no legal value. 

Playing with fire

And so the full stage show is set. The push against TTIP by some European leaders will cause enough distraction for CETA to scrape through the coming months unnoticed. TTIP could be picked back up in the near future pending elections on both sides of the Atlantic or if a compromise could be found on a minimal aspect of the deal in the coming months. In the short term, CETA is finalised and ready to go, and so must be saved. And in politics, the short term is all that matters. 

If that is the tactical move, they may have overplayed their hand. CETA has received a windfall of attention since many public interest groups began unpicking the content and joining the dots between it and it’s bigger brother TTIP. That Member States will now have a say also means greater attention across the board, including the impending vote in the European Parliament. 

It will also be difficult for leaders who have criticised TTIP to do a 180° turn later. If the EU wins the concessions it is looking for, it may be easier for the likes of Hollande and Gabriel to highlight progress. But whether citizens will see this as anything but flip-flopping is another thing. 

On the plus side- none of this would be happening if it wasn’t for the opposition movements across Europe. TTIP may only be resting and CETA may be scampering toward the finish line, but we have never been closer to putting both of them to sleep for good.

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