17 March 2014

Transparency calls grow louder, and with good reason.

Commission & USTR public charm offensive on trade deal fails to reassure.

Simon McKeagney, Editor

What does it say about our democracy when, the two chief negotiators for a deal that will profoundly affect the lives of millions of citizens from Seattle to Riga, finish off a day of talks by attending a private reception hosted by the largest industrial lobby group hoping to influence vast portions of that deal?

What should the reaction of the general public be when they hear that the chemical industry on both sides of the Atlantic have teamed up to secretly provide negotiators with draft texts that aim to manipulate negotiations, for example?

When the lobby group of the City of London Corporation, TheCityUK, says that the Commission’s text “reflected so closely the approach of TheCityUK that a bystander would have thought it came straight out of our brochure on TTIP” what questions should we be asking of the Commission and of their trade agenda?

When it becomes apparent that powerful corporations crafted negotiators agendas through private meetings and industry-dominated advisory groups before the talks even began, leaving civil society groups out in the cold- should we then ask who exactly the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership is for?

When citizens learn, not through their appointed officials in the Commission, but through the scraps of leaked material MEPs and individuals have managed to get their hands on- that there are plans to include a private court system that will allow corporations to sue governments for legislating for the public good, does that give the public reasons to be concerned? Courts that, through their very design, will not be open to communities who may want to seek damages against businesses themselves- are we then allowed to be worried?

How many rhetorical questions does it take before the Commission starts giving real answers?

If last week’s efforts by the negotiating teams were intended to quell the growing worries as to the nature of the EU-US free trade deal, the opposite has happened. The 4th round of negotiations exposed increasing divergence between the US and EU, but more importantly, also began to show the full extent to which business interests are being prioritised by the negotiators.

Magda Stoczkiewicz, director of Friends of the Earth Europe, said: “The European Commission has still not understood what genuine transparency and public engagement mean…It is unacceptable that citizens do not have the same channels as business groups to get information about the talks or to express their concerns about what is being traded away. Ending a day of stakeholder events with a private networking cocktail exclusively for business lobby groups gives us all the more reason to believe the European Commission is promoting the agenda of corporations – not people – in the TTIP talks.”

The idea that EU-US trade talks could be held in secret without active and clear civil society input from the get-go, remains a key cause for concern. 

As MEPs pointed out when they defeated the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) in 2012, law negotiated in secret is usually bad law. Similar international agreements conducted by countries through the World Trade Organisation or through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNCCC) are public and published, which begs the basic question as to why the same level of open access is not being granted now.

What is increasingly clear is that the public interest is not front and centre in these talks. Support for enhanced environmental protection, local sustainable growth, increased financial safeguards, and equitable justice systems should be the pillars of any agreement, not seen as threats to trade. TTIP at its very best is undermining these core principals. At its worst, it is actively opposing social progress for the benefit of large companies.

Sweating in the heat

That is not to say that the growing calls for transparency have not made a dent in the discussions during negotiation rounds. Both the Commission and USTR are on the back foot- and are now reacting to some degree to public pressure.

Dan Mullaney, US chief negotiator, took the time in Brussels on Friday to highlight US efforts to engage more robustly with stakeholders. He announced the formation of a new public interest committee- “that would provide a new conduit for expert advice on issues such as public health, development and consumer safety” to American negotiators on trade issues. The US also intend on “re-chartering” the advisory committee system, further “diversifying their membership”. USTR also published a factsheet on their offensive interests for the talks, broken down by issue, and with an option for stakeholders to email in submissions. While the timing indicates that these steps are being taken in response to the strong criticisms being voiced about the process, they are positive developments.

On the Commission’s side, members of the new advisory committee announced in late January seem to be busy discussing the parameters of the advisory group, and not much else. They have not yet seen the negotiating texts, and are none the wiser as to what they will be able to do to influence the talks if and when they do. The public consultation on the investment chapter and ISDS is still pending, but apparently due this week.

And so, there are real reasons to keep shouting louder on transparency. Twenty-seven NGOs co-signed a letter to Trade Commissioner De Gucht on Friday calling for exactly that, which to them means a lot more than the efforts being made right now. They demand:

  • The text of the EU’s negotiating mandate;
  • The initial position papers tabled by the EU;
  • Any further papers submitted by the EU in the course of the negotiations that detail or explain the position of the EU on the topic, and that are being used in the course of the negotiations with the other party;
  • The draft versions and final versions of individual chapters as well as the whole agreement at all steps of preparation and evolution (and at least before closing the negotiations and initialling so that parliaments and the public can still assess the outcome and make comments and recommendations).

If the European Commission is serious about openness and engagement , it should also proactively make the following available:

  • All written communications between the European Commission and other European institutional bodies (European Parliament and Member States) on this issue;
  • All agendas and minutes of meetings between the European Commission and the European Parliament and Member States on this issue;
  • All written communications between the European Commission and third parties –including industry and lobby organisations – on this issue;
  • All agendas and minutes of meetings between the European Commission and third parties – including industry and lobby organisations – on this issue.

Not only are these requests reasonable, most EU citizens would be surprised to find that they’re not already publically available. When all evidence suggests that corporate interests have been of tantamount importance to the negotiating teams, perhaps it is time for the European Commission to prove us wrong, and put people before private company concerns. Until then, negotiators might consider buying earplugs- because things are only going to get louder.  


Associated news:

DW News: Rights groups call for transparency in TTIP talks

European Voice: TTIP round ends with mixed messages

Atlantic Community: EU needs greater TTIP transparency


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