By Monique Goyens, Director General, BEUC, The European Consumer Organisation
TTIP not just trade as usual …
While BEUC, the umbrella organisation for 40 consumer organisations in 31 countries, does not traditionally focus on trade related issues – not because trade is not important, but we need to prioritise due to resource constraints – the transatlantic trade and investment partnership negotiations (TTIP) have become over the last months one of our strategic priorities.
There are many reasons for this, the details of which I invite you to discover in our own TTIP dedicated blog: www.beuc.eu/blog. To put it very shortly: while trade agreements can, under certain conditions and circumstances, deliver benefits to consumers in terms of choice, price and innovative products, TTIP is not just a trade agreement. Its focus on regulatory cooperation can lead to major disruptions of existing consumer protection frameworks, in areas such as food safety, chemicals and cosmetics, data protection, product safety etc. Let alone ISDS, which constitutes a threat to public policies in the EU.
And the fact that these hard earned protections are currently at risk is exactly the reason why there is a need for a public debate within the EU on TTIP’s risks and benefits over the years. More specifically we need to look into the scope and depth of what regulatory cooperation means for the right of the EU and its member states to uphold, adapt or improve their consumer standards.
…but European Commission just engaging into business as usual… or almost
In spite of TTIP’s different nature compared to the more traditional trade agreements, the Commission, and especially its DG Trade, orchestrates the negotiations’ procedures just as if this was a routine deal; DG Trade is in the lead of negotiations (with some input from other services), under very tight deadlines, and without the slightest ounce of timely democratic debate. It is true that these talks are the most transparent ones in EU history: the Commission organises stakeholder briefings, texts’ extracts are on EC’s website, an expert advisory group has been set up, a reading room is available for a selected number of experts and MEPs, under very strict conditions, etc. However, all these are well intended improvisations aimed to calm down a never seen expression of criticism and opposition from civil society, which confirms that better than nothing does not mean good enough.
The – real – risk is the rejection of TTIP – and the trauma that goes with it.
As long as texts are secret – and they remain adamantly secret in spite of requests by numerous and varied parts of society – those who are excluded from the negotiations can only suspect that there is something wrong. Secrecy leads to suspicion. And suspicion leads to elaboration of worst case scenarios and defensiveness. However, TTIP needs nothing more than constructive input from all stakeholders. Maintaining this secretive approach would lead to an ever increasing mobilisation against TTIP, with a major risk of it being rejected by the European Parliament. That would be an immense waste of resources.
Applying the precautionary principle to trade talks: open them up to prevent their failure
The EU can only gain from providing access to the negotiation texts to all stakeholders, starting with the Parliament and the Council, under clear and fair procedures and in such a way that allows for input, feedback and amendment. It can only gain from putting pressure on the US to also make available the consolidated negotiation text, because otherwise, the public would only see part of the picture – just like in a soccer game where only one of the two teams has to play by the rules… guess which one is going to win?
Only when access to documents is granted, may there be constructive and useful input from all stakeholders, including industry, retail, environment, labour and consumers. This will then feed the legitimacy of the process and its acceptance by public opinion: a winning attitude.
Why business should also be concerned
The transparency debate regarding the TTIP negotiations has been more than lively over the past months. Surprisingly, business representatives remain dead silent about the need to open up texts. One would be naïve to think that industry faces the same difficulties as NGO’s in getting insight on what is being negotiated. Don’t get me wrong: I have no problem with business representatives having such rights, as long as they are granted to other stakeholders too. Imbalanced access to information will lead to rejection of the deal by public opinion.
More fundamentally, business has full interest in an open and fair deal which will be endorsed by public opinion. It will also win out because civil society’s input can support the EU industry against some of the US negotiators’ offensives. Therefore, there is a big case to be made for business to join forces with other stakeholders to urgently set the framework for full transparency in the TTIP talks.