TTIP debate suffering from lack of transparency

The public’s opposition to the EU-US trade deal is largely due to poor communication on the issue. The EU must do more to inform its citizens, writes Bernd Lange.

By Bernd Lange

31 Oct 2014

The transatlantic trade and investment partnership (TTIP), currently being negotiated between the EU and the US, is by far the most controversial agreement the EU has ever negotiated. Since the start of discussions, opposition has been growing among the civilian population and certain political parties, despite the fact that the final content of the project cannot be discussed in detail, even one year on.

This leaves a lot of room for interpretation and speculation. Therefore, many critics are spreading horror stories and predicting that an agreement will result in a loss of democratic values. This criticism should have been addressed with maximum transparency from the outset.

Many citizens also consider the negotiations to be one-sided and solely focused on economic interests. They fear the discussions will lead to the implementation of a neoliberal economic system that will call social rights and decent standards into question.

We social democrats take these concerns very seriously. Furthermore, we have long been aware of the importance of transparency surrounding the TTIP negotiations. That is why we called for the publication of the negotiating mandate, as well as the position papers for all areas of negotiation.

The fact that the EU member states have complied with this demand is encouraging. Nevertheless, it must be said that this step has come several months too late. In order to hold a debate based on facts rather than myths and allegations, basic information is required. The negotiating mandate, which the member states use to instruct the commission to negotiate an agreement and its content, does, without a doubt, constitute such a basic document.

"There are too many areas of the TTIP negotiations on which the population has not been sufficiently informed"

However, the work is far from over in terms of transparency. There are too many areas of the TTIP negotiations on which the population has not been sufficiently informed. This arouses mistrust and makes having an open discussion impossible.
For such a debate to take place, policymakers must take clear positions. We social democrats have sourced these, explained our red lines to the EU negotiators and conducted a broad debate with European citizens.
It is worth trying to negotiate favourable agreements with the US, as they could become global standards. The export-oriented European economy, and particularly small and medium-sized businesses, thrives on innovation and quality improvements.

Cost reductions, thanks to cuts in customs duties, faster procedures, the avoidance of double certification, among other things, are clearly helpful in this regard. So too are improvements in market access, for example in the field of public procurement in the US.

However, it must be understood that when it comes to TTIP, European standards are non-negotiable. Under no circumstances must a trade agreement with the US result in a lowering of European standards. These must, among others, be guaranteed in the areas of consumer protection, food safety, environmental and climate protection and privacy.

Likewise, Europe’s high social standards must be ensured in years to come. For example, cultural diversity in the EU and the preservation of public services are non-negotiable in the eyes of social democrats.

We also have a clear stance on the controversial investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS): We are confident that there is no place for it in an agreement between two states with established legal systems, and investors should not be given rights without duties.

We must avoid the possibility of investors suing the EU or its member states beyond normal legal proceedings before international arbitration courts for lost profits or expropriation. Recent debates on the subject raise doubts as to whether there will be a majority vote in favour of an agreement with ISDS in parliament.

The ISDS models recently presented in the EU-Canada comprehensive economic and trade agreement and the EU-Singapore free trade agreement cannot serve as the gold standard. Many of the definitions featured in these agreements are too ambiguous and do not satisfactorily rule out the possibility of unjustified legal action.

"Under no circumstances must a trade agreement with the US result in a lowering of European standards"

In our view, democratically induced decisions regarding general public interest, for example in the important areas of health, environment and consumer protection, cannot be altered. Without ISDS, investors would not completely be left to their own devices but could, for example, take advantage of insurance against political uncertainties.

Ultimately, the decision to ratify EU trade agreements lies with parliament. However, one thing is clear. Neither the powers who, from the outset, rejected negotiations for political and tactical reasons, without wishing to influence content, nor those who, for geopolitical reasons, are in principle prepared to approve the agreement without assessing future content, are dealing with the negotiations seriously.

We social democrats explore opportunities and problems and base our final decision on them. Furthermore, the fact that we take our right to vote against trade agreements very seriously was demonstrated by our rejection of the anti-counterfeiting trade agreement. Parliament rejected it on the basis of substantive weaknesses and flaws, condemning it to failure.

So far, the TTIP negotiations have made little progress. Important issues such as customs, standards, procedures for setting standards and authorising products and public procurement do not appear to be leading to any joint results. In many areas, the US negotiators have not moved at all or have presented totally inadequate proposals. The US needs to display greater flexibility regarding the European requirements and European social model if they do want the talks to succeed.

Following the establishment of a new commission, the US midterm elections in November 2014, and the publication of the results of the public consultation on ISDS in TTIP, an important next step in the work of parliament’s international trade committee will be to conduct a critical analysis on the status of negotiations to date.


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