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27 July 2014
Did you take action on ISDS? EU Trade Commissioner says you didn’t.
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.
De Gucht expresses shocking contempt for 10,000s who submitted identical response to #TTIP consultation. Will treat as just ONE response.— Jo Swabe (@joswabe) July 22, 2014
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:
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.