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27 July 2014

Did you take action on ISDS? EU Trade Commissioner says you didn’t.

Commission considering counting thousands of responses as “one”.

Simon McKeagney, Editor

A record-breaking number of responses flooded into the Commission’s consultation on investor-state disputes settlement (ISDS) which closed on July 13. Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht announced to MEPs on July 15 that 150,000 individuals had responded to the his request for feedback on ISDS in TTIP. Never before had such large numbers replied to such a consultation, which is even more surprising given that, until late last year, it was still a relatively unknown concept to many. In comparison, a recent Commission consultation on a tobacco directive, a controversial and well-known issue in itself, received 30,000 replies. 

But now Commissioner De Gucht has called into question whether many of these responses from the public will be counted. A large number of replies came through third party campaigning sites across Europe, where answers to the technical trade-specific questions were provided. 

“To my knowledge there is a little more than 150,000 answers but many of them are identical. Which is interesting. How do you [handle] that?” said De Gucht last Tuesday at an INTA committee meeting. He went on:

“And it’s obvious that this procedure has been circumvented, making it possible to multiply the same answers. So we have said we are going to make a quantitative and qualitative analysis. And I think its Yannick Jadot that said there will be more negative than positive answers and thats why I think we need to give a quantitative and qualitative analysis because I would take all the identical ones for one. That makes sense maybe not from a mathematical point of view but from a political point of view.”

Whether or not the replies were submitted through campaign organisations, do duplicated answers invalidate the sentiment of the thousands of individuals who responded to the call for input? Many MEPs and stakeholders don’t think so.

The death of clicktivism or a Commission out of touch?

Leaving the numbers aside for a moment, lets recount the aim of the consultation, as stated by the Commission when it was announced in March this year:

The European Commission is consulting the public in the EU on a possible approach to investment protection and ISDS in the TTIP. The proposed approach contains a series of innovative elements that the EU proposes using as the basis for the TTIP negotiations. The key issue on which we are consulting is whether the EU’s proposed approach for TTIP achieves the right balance between protecting investors and safeguarding the EU's right and ability to regulate in the public interest.

There has been growing concern that ISDS is a threat to national governments’ right to regulate. As awareness has grown, so too has the public’s appetite to get involved in the process. Campaign organisations have rightfully recognised this need and have understood that citizens are now engaging with their public institutions in a variety of new ways, including through third party platforms. Such as it is in this case, with SumofUS.org, 38Degrees.co.uk and No2ISDS.eu all being involved in the process. The latter two alone received 55,511 and 23,647 individual responders respectively. It is now commonplace to see citizens engage and interact with political issues in petitions, consultations and commentary collated by such platforms. 

To discount duplicate replies would be to suggest that the viewpoint of those who expressed opposition to ISDS via these platforms, should be ignored. Why is it less valid to use prepared responses than it is for two or more corporations to use the same argument for retaining ISDS, despite using different language? 

The sentiment matters, not the language.

Countries where the debate over TTIP has taken root submitted the most responses, as is now clear from the Commission’s official consultation numbers. 52,000 responded from the UK at a time when a national protest against TTIP was taking place. 33,000 responded from Austria and 32,000 from Germany, who have been vocal on the issue for months. And where there has been greater awareness from the public, we're also likely to see greater oppostion to ISDS. Although the Commission had asked the public for their feedback, De Gucht's words seem to suggest they are now rowing back on this commitment.  Paul De Clerck of Friends of the Earth, one of the organisations involved in creating the No2ISDS website said:

'De Gucht said that he would ask the public what they think about ISDS. Through our website more than 23,000 people did give a very firm answer 'we don't want it' and they provided detailed and substantive arguments why reforming the system doesn't work. Counting these as 1 contribution is unacceptable and would show the Commission's complete disrespect for public opinion.' 

The UK-based 38 Degree, had similar observations, writes Megan Bentall:

'Over 55,000 38 Degrees members wrote individual responses to the consultation, telling the EU negotiating team that allowing corporations to sue governments has no place in a modern trade deal. Those thousands of people submitted their responses as individuals. They must be heard as such. The commission's form seemed to have been designed to have been as off-putting as possible, whereas the 38 Degrees site gave members of the public an easy way to have their independent say on a trade deal that will affect all of us. It's not only disheartening, it's also seriously out of touch for Mr DeGucht to dismiss the majority of the submissions to the consultation. Is it because he doesn't agree with what they say?'
 

The "quantitative and qualitative" report of the consultation is unlikely to be available until November, as the Commission will need time to process the findings. Lets hope they also find the time to reconsider discounting the input of thousands of members of the public. 

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Comments

Fern Bast

sometimes i struggle to type and still want my views heard and respected. I am against TTIP

Kaius Jaatinen

By writing this my response is unique.

L. Kersten

I am against ISDS and TTIP and I want my answer to be taken into account. Companies and investors should not be able to 'overrule' the laws, rules and regulations that we established democratically. Do not throw that away for the sake of profit!

Helmut Himbert

I am absolut against TTIP.

Damon Locker

This is typical of those in power, manipulating democracy to suit their own desires. I have supported the EU which has been difficult but my support will end if opposition to TTIP is not given due consideration.

Damon Locker

This is typical of those in power, manipulating democracy to suit their own desires. I have supported the EU which has been difficult but my support will end if opposition to TTIP is not given due consideration.

Octavia Baluga

I am against ISDS and TTIP and I want my answer to be taken into account. Companies and investors should not be able to 'overrule' the laws, rules and regulations that we established democratically. Do not throw that away for the sake of profit! This is typical of those in power, manipulating democracy to suit their own desires. I have supported the EU which has been difficult but my support will end if opposition to TTIP is not given due consideration. I live in Brighton, in the UK county of Sussex. Others express their opposition so well that I quote them. So such repetition should still be noted as valid opinion.

Tom Lines

In some cases, especially in the financial sphere, various business organisations used identical phrases in their submissions to earlier consultations on TTIP. I am sure they were counted as separate. An example, from both sides of the Atlantic, is from Business Europe and the Coalition of Service Industries in the US. Both demanded for banks, in these words: "the right to choose corporate form,… the right to invest at any level of ownership… and the prohibition of quantitative limitations (e.g., quotas on licenses or branches)." When the banking lobby is so well coordinated, the Commission must respect the public's right to the same.

G. Housley

Surely if identical responses are ruled out then that means they can ignore any petitions sent in? This is outrageous and anti democratic. I hate to make the comparison but this is reminiscent of the tactics at the start of totalitarian states.

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