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27 November 2014
Full TTIP transparency: much more than opening a door.
The Commission has announced that new transparency measures have been adopted for the TTIP talks following 18 months of mounting pressure over the issue. Bernd Lange (S&D) chairman of the International Trade Committee, called the measures a “huge step” at a joint press conference with the new trade commissioner Cecilia Malmström in Strasbourg. But he also noted that measures like the publishing of the TTIP mandate (which the Council only agreed to in September) was “really late, perhaps a year and half too late” and was “not a good starting point.”
And so, efforts to jumpstart the ailing talks, at least from a public perception point of view, have begun with a set of new transparency mechanisms. They are as follows:
• making public more EU negotiating texts that the Commission already shares with Member States and Parliament;
• providing access to TTIP texts to all Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) by extending the use of a 'reading room' to those MEPs who had no access to restricted documents so far;
• classifying less TTIP negotiating documents as "EU restricted", making them more easily accessible to MEPs outside the reading room;
• publishing and updating on a regular basis a public list of TTIP documents shared with the European Parliament and the Council.
The improvements are minimal for the general public, as key negotiating texts will remain behind closed doors. However they do serve to make access to documents for their representatives in the European Parliament (at least) better. Lange pointed out that up to now, only 13 out of 751 MEPs had full access to all negotiating texts, which in itself is a dispiriting fact. But the move is by no means an answer to the problem of transparency around TTIP, and it raises four big questions worth thinking about.
1. Why not before?
If Tuesday's announcement told us anything, it is that the Commission had the power to make things better all along. They chose not to use that power. Instead they decided to keep the majority of Europe’s parliamentarians, as well as the public, in the dark. The fact that they can choose so easily between secrecy and transparency is worrying, and indicates how vulnerable these decisions are to changes in the political weather. In short, these decisions were not made on the grounds of any institutional needs, let alone a real policy, but because of public and political pressure.
2. What will this now mean in practice?
All MEPs will now be granted access to the secure reading room where negotiating texts are held. Less of those texts will be branded with ‘restricted’, which in theory should make documents more accessible. This in itself is not a win for transparency. A negotiation process as vast and complex as TTIP, involving hundreds of negotiators from both sides, results in literally thousands of pages of text, with terminologies and technical trade language inaccessible to most. It is also unclear what texts will be made available that include US positions (active negotiating texts) and how involved the US will be in approving access to information from their side. Moreover, how the Commission plans to host all 751 MEPs in a tiny reading room, presents real logistical problems, or would at least make for a very long queue.
Malmström has indicated that some political staff may also gain access to the reading room, but declined getting into the detail on how this information will now be processed at parliamentary level. What use is access if the contents cannot be debated, questioned and reviewed as part of everyday parliamentary processes? Will the designated MEPs on issues like the environment, agriculture, and public services be able to scrutinize these proposals, and share their contents with their colleagues and constituents? Unlikely.
Full transparency is, after all, not just about unlocking a door, but about being able to adequately digest and understand the information you have obtained.
In fact, the Commission wants to retain the confidentiality of these documents and has suggested a penalty system will be applied to those MEPs caught leaking information, curbing any chance of open debate. They’ve also suggested that the implementation of these new arrangements could take months, if not a year, something that does not bode well for the Commission’s timeline of hoping to complete the TTIP talks by the end of 2015.
3. Why is this a once-off?
Malmström was noticeably agitated when journalists pressed her not once, but three times on whether or not these new mechanisms would apply to all other international trade agreements the EU negotiates. The answer, each time, was the same: these measures were “just for TTIP.” She would not be drawn on explaining why, though admitted that great public interest was the reason they were making these changes in the first place.
As good as it is to note that the public pressure is working, it also reveals the ad-hoc nature to such decision-making. It is essential that a sound and concrete policy for transparency for all international trade agreements is adopted. As it stands, it is quite clear from these efforts that they’re making it up as they go along.
4. What about citizens?
Very little has changed for citizens with these measures. They still lack access to the active negotiating texts, and this is the crux of the issue. No amount of EU position papers published online will constitute replacements for these. Nor will ”publishing and updating on a regular basis a public list of TTIP documents” that have already been shared with the other institutions. If this was supposed to win over public support for a newly ‘invigorated’ TTIP, then, sadly, there's little reason to show why it will. Lange, while hailing these mechanisms as a "huge step" and "an historical moment for transparency" should keep this in mind. Citizens remain out in the cold. The fight around transparency in TTIP continues.
Read: the Ombudsman's press release on transparency here.