07 October 2014

TTIP Talks: a Council coup d'état?

No US-Commission stocktaking in Rome on October 14, but Froman will meet trade ministers.

Simon McKeagney, Editor

United States Trade Representative Michael Froman will meet EU trade ministers in Rome on October 14. Why is this unusual? Both sides, after all, are locked in discussions about creating the largest free trade deal in history. But those with a hawk-eye vision for detail on EU trade policy may have looked twice.

The Commission has been tasked by the Council to deliver TTIP, based on an agreed mandate. Members of the Council therefore have not been directly involved in the talks which at times has led to some frustration. They are instead briefed regularly by the Commission, whose right it is to negotiate external trade relations on behalf of Member States. In theory, the Lisbon Treaty was supposed to clarify any remaining question marks over where trade competency lies within the EU, in particular relating to matters on investment and investor protection. Yet in reality, Member States have continued to sign bilateral investment treaties with third countries around the world. 

This ongoing tug-of-war between the Council and Commission on where these competences lie has been crystallized in TTIP. With such huge and contentious areas dear to Member States coming under the umbrella of negotiations, the Council seems to be positioning itself to redirect the Commission’s agenda.

‘Interim Agreement’ still in play 

Hence, Rome’s US-Council meeting of trade ministers could be significant, and may spell the start of the Council’s growing assertiveness to retake the reigns of the negotiation process. When the Italian presidency floated the idea of an ‘interim agreement’ for TTIP last month, it shed light on the internal reevaluation the Council is taking on the talks in general. The Council’s proposal for the slimmed-down agreement has not gone away since it was first suggested in the European Parliament on September 3rd, a concept not shared (or appreciated) by the Commission or the US.

And if the Council takes the lead on setting the agenda, the new Commission will start off on the back-foot. With the Commission busy transitioning to a new team, outgoing Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht was supposed to continue in his role through to November when the new Commission College will officially take up their posts. But the lack of political stocktaking is a strong indication that De Gucht has been prematurely benched. Some Commission insiders are said to be quietly relieved, as De Gucht did little in his to help quell the growing controversy surrounding the negotiations.

The fact that Froman will instead meet EU trade ministers in Rome is no small feat. In fact, it represents a big coup for the Council. The US has indicated that it does not intend on concluding a formal stock-taking with this current Commission, and will wait instead for a new Commission to ‘reinvigorate’ the talks.

The Council’s initiative comes as mixed messages circle in the Commission too. The Malmström hearing highlighted the inner-conflicts between Juncker and DG Trade on ISDS, as we reported regarding that edited quote.

So- why does all of this matter? The General Affairs and External Relations Council will meet on November 21, where foreign ministers will again discuss the TTIP negotiations. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that they could present a new TTIP negotiating strategy. Although it is too early to speculate, the rising voice of the Council in relation to TTIP is likely to change the nature and ambition of any future agreement. Watch this space.

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