We are in the midst of the mother of all trade negotiations. The EU and the US have already celebrated the second round of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). This is not your ordinary free trade agreement that focusses on tariffs and protectionism but a game-changing attempt to find common denominators for environmental, health, food, energy and medical regulations on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s obviously about issues of the foremost public interest. But as mind boggling as it may seem, it’s precisely the public that is not allowed to find out exactly what the negotiations are about…
According to the European Commission “All documents related to the negotiation or development of the TTIP agreement, including negotiating texts, proposals of each side, accompanying explanatory material, discussion papers, emails related to the substance of the negotiations, and other information exchanged in the context of the negotiations (…) will be held in confidence.” But what does “held in confidence” mean?
“In confidence” means accepting that the US gives real time access to TTIP negotiating texts and documents to the largest 700 US industries, most of which operate in the EU. It means that these companies can give concrete legal wording suggestions directly to the negotiators while transatlantic civil society organizations and the general public cannot.
Even former US chief trade negotiator Robert Zoellick complained about the rationality of this policy: “Frankly, that always surprised me that draft trade texts were seen by hundreds of people anyway – government officials, advisors and lobbyists. So, why not simply put the information online?”
A recent article by the New York Times shows how the European Commission consults industry lobby groups in the preparation of the TTIP talks. The basis of the article was internal Commission files requested via the EU access to information laws by the New York Times and Corporate Europe Observatory. The pretty explosive documents acquired show the incredible privileged access that corporate industry is granted by the Commission over the agenda of the trade negotiations, as well as the big business agenda to use TTIP as an almost revolutionary tool in the way that legislation will be written in the future.
Moreover, EU Trade Commission De Gucht has candidly said that the reason to focus so much on “technical barriers to trade” and to build this chapter on the five pillars of the automotive-, chemical-, pharmaceutical, medical, and ICT industries is because these sectors offered input as to what they wanted out of a TTIP deal. It leaves us wondering why other stakeholders have not been involved to that same degree.
Both EU and US trade officials are constantly claiming the highest degree of transparency and citizen participation. Nevertheless, the reality is that without texts being made publicly available it is virtually impossible to provide appropriate consumer and citizen input or feedback for these crucial trade negotiations. Without access to precise wording the real social, economic and environmental impacts will remain unknown to the public. And currently, the signs we do get, point in the wrong direction. As the devil is in the details, in TTIP negotiations the public should be given an adequately long spoon to eat with the devil: full transparency, nothing less.
An informed debate means that the issues and the texts are on the table for all to see. So far support for TTIP is high in the general public according to a PEW poll. But remember ACTA: the public in the end will not buy a pig in a poke.
Reinhard Buitikofer, Member of the European Parliament
David Hammerstein, TransAtlantic Consumer Dialogue