30 April 2014

Japan’s 5 sacred cows: a lesson for EU’s TTIP approach

Despite EU assertions, nothing is 'off-the-table' in TTIP talks.

Simon McKeagney, Editor

‘Non-negotiable’ and ‘not-on-the-table’; two phrases EU leaders are sure to include anytime discussion on TTIP turns to what we may need to sacrifice to secure a deal.  There will be no impact on our standards, we are told, yet the big ‘wins’ will come from the removal of non-tariff barriers – a trade-speak term for our standards and regulation. How is that possible?

On Monday, the four leading candidates for the Commission presidency expressed once again their staunch unwillingness to compromise on standards in TTIP, be them social, environmental or health and safety:

"Those who believe that we are prepared as Europeans to allow that it is used as an instrument, as a tool, to reduce our ecological, our social, our individual rights, they are wrong, with me this is not feasible"

Expressed Martin Schulz, one of the two most likely to get the EU's top job and who declined to state whether he would scrap the deal entirely if it became apparent that such compromises had to be made.

This echoes the regular noises from Trade Commissioner De Gucht, who maintains that the EU redlines on food safety, such as the opposition to imports of hormone injected beef and chlorine washed chicken are ‘not up for discussion’ in the negotiations.

Yet on the US side, we know that the strong push for EU market access for these products continues and that they consider our opposition to such chemical treatments as ‘unscientific’.  A revealing interview with Darci Vetter of the US Department of Agriculture by Vieuws reiterated this stance, stating the US's hope is for a comprehensive agreement that includes ambitious offers on agricultural products. The heave against European regulatory requirements couldn't be more clear:

"I think for the United States what we would like to see is a scientific basis for regulations...we’d like to see a greater acceptance on a scientific basis of the different methods used in different countries, and I think there’s a willingness on both sides to look at how we do that."

Full interview by Vieuws:

This effort to undermine EU regulations by expressing the need for a 'scientific basis' is well-calculated, something covered in an article by Colin Macilwain in Nature, who argues that 'sound science' has become Orwellian double-speak for various forms of pro-business spin

'The term 'sound science' may sound innocuous — comforting, even. Don't be fooled. In policy circles, its use is now pretty-much confined to the determined band of brothers who make their livings trying to roll back government regulation, by fair means or foul.'

All gain, no pain?

So how probable is it that a comprehensive TTIP deal could reduce or eliminate non-tariff trade barriers while at the same time safeguarding all of our valued standards? The "win-win" rhetoric both negotiating teams propagate is unlikely if each side is expected to give some to get some. And with a US push for big gains on agricultural exports, the pain has to come from changes to EU regulatory requirements, as EU-US tariffs are already so low.

Indeed, this is exactly the intention of lobby groups such as the U.S Federation of Meat Exports, who indicated in a letter to the US Trade Representative that the elimination of key EU standards on meat was a priority:

'We wish to emphasize that an agreement that eliminates duties on beef and pork but leaves the EU’s hormone and ractopamine bans in place will be of limited value to the U.S beef and pork industries'

Such requests from America's industrial lobbies have been duly taken up by US negotiators, who are lock-step with industry on this issue and at best indifferent to any area that may be designated as "off the table" with whom they are negotiating.

Sacrificing the Sacred Cows

Nowhere has this been more obvious than in Japan last week. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe welcomed President Obama on a state visit aimed at concluding a precursor trade deal to the TTIP’s sister-agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The hope was to sure up consensus in order to present a united front for the wider TPP negotiations, involving 10 other Pacific nations.

Five “sacred” products of political sensitivity existed for Japan which were ‘identified last year by Mr. Abe as not up for negotiation’; rice, wheat, sugar, dairy and beef.  But for the US 'not up for negotiation' seems to mean 'push harder'.  The two leaders did not reach a comprehensive agreement, but despite the Japanese premier's statements to the contrary, as well as political pressure, redlines and public protest, both sides have now agreed to negotiate over these politically sensitive products:

'A U.S. official said the trip "took the talks to a new level" and "in a number of the products, we were able to identify what the path is going to be to ultimate resolution." The official pointed to progress in six agricultural areas: beef, pork, dairy, wheat, sugar and rice.' - Wall Street Journal

Negotiations are give and take; that means sacrifice

Back to Europe and the Commission's steadfast public statements of 'not-one-inch' on standards may be music to the ears of many, but it does not reflect the reality of real negotiations. The offensive interests the US and EU require will be played out so key wins can be secured on the back of agreed losses. Such was the insinuation of Hiddo Houben, who heads up the trade and agriculture section of the European Union delegation in Washington. According to Inside US Trade, he is quoted as saying this week:

"We are, I think at least in political terms, going to be giving more in agriculture than we get ... and in procurement we are hoping to get more that we give, because our market is more open today. At least that's what we would argue."

So are our EU standards completely 'off the table'? 'Non-negotiable'? 'Not up for discussion?' 'Not feasible?' We may wish so, but as the saying goes 'nothing is sacred.' Not even Japanese cows.

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