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04 September 2014
‘Interim agreement’ first indication that TTIP reevaluation has begun
In one of Italy’s first appearances in the European Parliament since it assumed the Council Presidency in July, Carlo Calenda, the minister charged with overseeing TTIP for the Council, announced to the INTA committee the possibility of concluding an “interim agreement” for TTIP in light of lack of progress to date.
The announcement is politically significant. It is both a clear indication that a thorough TTIP reevaluation is underway at the highest levels in Brussels, and that a comprehensive agreement may be too controversial and substantial to swallow in one go. The minister noted that a “profound reflection on the negotiation strategy” was now needed and that a decision to go for an interim agreement could take place after the US mid-term elections in November, with an aim to conclude it in 2015.
But why now? It is unusual for a Member State who has assumed the Council presidency to start off on a low note and reduce expectations on such a key agenda item for the EU. Yet it may signal a wider sentiment in the Council that the unpopularity and media scrutiny surrounding TTIP needs to be curbed before it spins out of control. By concluding a scaled down TTIP, or ‘TTIP-lite’, controversial items such as the investor-state dispute settlement, non-tariff barriers and mutual recognition of standards could be kicked to touch, and be dealt with later when public interest subsides. Problematic sectors like agriculture or public procurement could be isolated out and tackled individually. In many ways an interim agreement holds true to original intentions to create a ‘living agreement’, a structure that formalises never-ending negotiations, which do not need return to any parliament for ratification.
It is also significant because anything less than a comprehensive TTIP has been fiercely rejected by Commission officials and the US, at least so far. There is an important reason for this. A ‘TTIP-lite’ agreement restricts both negotiating teams from using the most contentious issues as leverage. The ‘comprehensive’ aspect of TTIP allows both sides to concede on areas they care less about in order to make gains in others. This give-and-take approach would be undone.
A reevaluation of TTIP by the Council has the potential to unnerve the US. But even one of Jean-Claude Juncker’s top priorities is to conclude a “fair and balanced” TTIP. As it stands, the amounting evidence suggests that it is not heading in that direction. The changing of the Commission guard over the coming months presents a one-in-five year opportunity to take stock and readdress such agenda items.
'Trust us, wait and see'
Anthony Gardner, the new US Ambassador to the EU, immediately refuted Italy’s interim suggestion at the same INTA meeting, aggressively defending a comprehensive deal:
“There are many geopolitical and economic reasons to conclude an ambitious agreement, and I say ambitious because we continue to believe, like our Commission colleagues, that only a comprehensive agreement would yield the significant results our leaders want. Yes I know our friend Carlo Calenda.. believes an interim agreement should be considered but we continue to believe that only a comprehensive agreement will work.”
While Mr. Gardner said he would look forward to “a regular, open and honest dialogue”, he went on to attack those who have raised issues of concern, such as chlorine washed chicken. Such issues he claimed were “peripheral” and amounted to “scaremongering”. So much for an open and honest dialogue. He then warned those who “refuse to believe” the assurances of both sides: “do not prejudge the results, wait until we have advanced texts before you make up your mind.”
The public and my colleagues in the European Parliament might be in a better position to make up their minds if the current negotiating texts were not locked away in secure ‘reading rooms’, visible only to a select few of us. Gardner maintains that this issue with transparency is a “myth”. He said that the US Congress were “happy” with the level of access they received, and that it was “difficult to convince us that we should provide you with more access to negotiating texts than we provide our own members of Congress.” Somehow, I sincerely doubt that all members of Congress are “happy” with their current level of access when it comes to the free trade deals the US are now negotiating.
Parliamentarians and the public are no longer putting up with “trust us” and “just wait and see”, as much as Gardner says we should. Nothing from past negotiations suggests that that is a wise move. Perhaps Carlo Calenda’s “profound reflection on the negotiation strategy” could take this into account. Sometimes a surgeon has to cut off a limb to save the patient. Other times, he can lose both.