23 May 2014

‘Lies’ : Elections, outbursts and EU-US free trade talks

Manchester Policy Blogs: The European Elections have continued to put advocates of the deal on the defensive, but it has not prompted any fundamental shift in their position.

Ferdi De Ville and Gabriel Siles-Brügge Lecturers in Politics, Ghent & Manchester Universities

The European elections have coincided with the latest round of talks on the EU-US Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Dr Gabriel Siles-Brügge and Dr Ferdi De Ville argue that election campaigns have continued to put advocates of the deal on the defensive, but it has not prompted any fundamental shift in their position.

‘We observe that, insofar as a public debate on the TTIP exists, EU member states are losing it.’ This was the opinion of the House of Lords EU Committee in a report on the free trade deal currently being negotiated between the EU and the US.

With the European elections, the debate on TTIP has really ‘hotted up’ since our last blog on the subject in January, with the House of Lords report highlighting how the TTIP’s advocates are being increasingly put on the defensive.

Spurred on by a mounting civil society campaign, including an Alternative Trade Mandate featuring a pledge for prospective candidates, quite a number political parties have taken up the mantel of criticising the TTIP.

Key issues have included the perceived threat the agreement poses to European social and environmental standards, the prospect of investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) (which would allow firms to sue governments for perceived violations of the agreement in independent tribunals) and the perceived lack of transparency in the negotiations.

The agreement’s most prominent critics have been the European Greens, who have set up a dedicated website, featured the issue in their manifesto and have organised and/or participated in several protests against the TTIP.

In their relatively lengthy position paper on the issue, they stress that the agreement could ‘fundamentally change the way in which we use democratic institutions to set regulations [in a wide range of fields] undermining the relevance of citizens’ preferences and demands’.

Other parties have also been active – and for the most part quite critical of the TTIP. The Left Group in the European Parliament has commissioned a critical study and its members have spoken out against the agreement.

The Socialist Group – while less opposed to the agreement itself – has publicly objected to the inclusion of ISDS in the agreement and its Spitzenkandidat for the European Commission Presidency, Martin Schulz, has called for negotiations to be suspended because of the elections.

Even the European Peoples’ Party candidate, Jean-Claude Juncker, who otherwise proclaimed the economic benefits of the agreement, stressed in one of the several TV debates that a ‘lowering of EU standards’ would not be ‘negotiable’.

Taken together with the rise of the populist right – also largely opposed to the TTIP – this has led the LSE’s Simon Hix to conclude that there may well be a majority opposed to the agreement in the next European Parliament.

The European Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht’s response to this increasing pressure has been noticeably defensive. At the recent European Business Summit on 15 May – which also saw 240 anti-TTIP protestors arrested by the Belgian police – he accused groups critical of the TTIP of spreading ‘lies’ about the agreement on ‘social media’, while also taking aim at supposed electioneering by European political parties.

This is unfair. If anything, we would argue that it is the Commission that has been somewhat disingenuous when it comes to talking about the agreement. As we have argued – in a blog entry and a more detailed academic paper – the figure widely touted by advocates of the agreement that the TTIP will generate €119bn a year in extra growth is premised on dubious econometric models. These assume far greater gains from economic liberalisation than are likely to emerge from the deal.

This is underscored by the meagre results of negotiations so far. The US has, up until now (the fifth round of talks) not, from the EU perspective, made a satisfactory offer in the tariff talks – and this is allegedly ‘easiest’ aspect of the negotiations. Meanwhile US officialscontinue resisting EU attempts to include financial services in the talks.

Moreover, the Commission’s (and others’) focus on these growth figures in its public defence of the agreement – in essence implying that opponents of the deal ‘anti-growth’ and ‘anti-jobs’– has clearly sought to downplay the potential social and environmental impact of the agreement.

As a critical study of the existing TTIP impact assessments (the one commissioned by the Left Group in the European Parliament, alluded to above) argues, these neglect the ‘social costs of regulatory change’ which ‘might be substantial’.

The NGOs, Greens and others critical of the TTIP clearly have a point. Simply accusing them of ‘lying’ and electioneering does not do the Commission any favours. Aside from prompting an angry response from such groups, it does nothing to improve the quality of the debate on the TTIP.

One of the most important accusations made of the Commission is that it is not really interested in transparent, democratically-accountable negotiations and in consulting stakeholders beyond business.

The Commissioner’s outburst, and general reticence to engage with the arguments of those critical of the agreement, is hardly reassuring.

Kindly reposted with the permission of Manchester Policy Blogs.

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