TTIP Twelfth Round Gets Underway, Amid Protests and Timing Questions
The twelfth round of US-EU trade and investment talks is well underway in Brussels, Belgium, after a tumultuous start that saw protests disrupt the beginning of the meet.
The 22-26 February meet is the first such gathering of 2016, a year that is increasingly being touted as a pivotal one for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), as the proposed deal is known – particularly given the impending change in leadership in the United States.
The TTIP talks were launched nearly three years ago, with the goal of reaching a pact by end-2014 that would yield both market access gains and key advances in regulatory cooperation and coherence. (See Bridges Weekly, 20 June 2013 and 18 July 2013)
The two sides already have the world’s largest trading relationship, and have said that a completed TTIP deal could both yield significant commercial gains while also strengthening their geopolitical partnership in the face of current and future challenges.
Along with the pressure to ramp up the talks, whose momentum has long been decried as lagging, this round is also expected to be notable given that it will be the first formal discussion of the EU’s full proposal for a TTIP investment court system.
The European Commission put this proposal together in an attempt to answer public concerns over the shortcomings seen in previous investor-state dispute mechanisms included in earlier agreements, and has said that it hopes this could serve as a model for an international investment court system. (See Bridges Weekly, 17 September 2015)
Regarding market access, talks are slated to continue on updated goods and services offers. However, while public procurement offers had previously been expected for this round, these are now reportedly expected next week, for discussion in March.
Froman: Political will needed from “both sides”
EU officials have repeatedly said that they hope to see a concluded TTIP before US President Barack Obama leaves office in January 2017 – in other words, before the end of this year. (See Bridges Weekly, 21 January 2016)
Doubts over this timeline were recently raised on the US side, however, after White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest suggested that a TTIP deal under Obama’s tenure was unlikely – and that Washington will instead be working to make as many advances as possible before a change in leadership. (See Bridges Weekly, 11 February 2016)
In the weeks since, US officials have sought to clarify their expectations on timeline, while placing the onus on both sides to reach the desired result.
“The Obama Administration is prepared to make every effort to conclude TTIP, but to do so, we need both sides to apply the necessary political will,” said US Trade Representative (USTR) Michael Froman to a Munich audience earlier this month.
Brexit fears, other challenges
The US trade chief also weighed in on various challenges facing the 28-nation EU, including the prospect of a “Brexit” pending the results of an upcoming June referendum.
“Obviously, the decision about the UK’s role in the EU is up to the British people, but as the President has said, we value a strong UK in the EU,” said Froman. (For more on “Brexit,” see related story, this edition)
Building public support within the European Union is another major obstacle, which EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström referred to during a speech in Austria this week.
“Concerns cover many issues, but at the core is the idea deals like TTIP will force Austrians to change their way of life,” she said in Vienna to the Austrian Chamber of Labour.
“People in this country have been worried that by cooperating more with the US on issues like these we will lead to lower standards of food safety – including by allowing products like GMOs or hormone beef. Here too, we have listened, learned, and changed,” she added, outlining a series of steps that Brussels has taken in an effort to address these concerns.
Among the steps taken to address this, she noted, was a three-part pledge by all 28 members of the College of Commissioners last autumn that included commitments to never lower consumer protection, food safety, or environmental standards through trade pacts; that any advances through such agreements in regulation would only be to improve these; and that no deal will prevent the EU from taking future steps to protect either consumers or the environment.
The US’ top diplomat has similarly reiterated in recent weeks that Washington has no intention of convincing Brussels on making any concessions that would unravel such protections.
“Nothing in TTIP – nothing requires Europe to reduce or undo important regulations or weaken existing standards. That is false,” said US Secretary of State John Kerry in Munich earlier this month.
“On the contrary, the agreement will underscore our support for the inclusion of high environmental or labour standards in trade agreements, just as we have done in the Trans-Pacific Partnership,” he added.
Whether these assurances and others will be enough to address public concerns within Europe – and eventually win the support of EU lawmakers should an agreement be negotiated – remains unclear.
Indeed, this week’s round began with protests from Greenpeace, the environmental advocacy group, with activists reportedly blocking entry to the building where the meetings were being held in a bid to delay the start of the talks.
US presidential primaries
Meanwhile, the presidential primary process is already well underway in the United States, which has in turn led to an escalation in the rhetoric on controversial issues, including on trade.
While candidates on both sides have generally focused their trade comments on a different multi-country agreement – the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which Obama is pushing to see ratified this year – both the rhetoric and scheduled change in governance has stoked fears among proponents that any delay in completing an EU-US pact could be hugely damaging to TTIP’s long-term prospects.
“It is urgent that the text of the agreement be finalised this year,” said Tim Bennett, Director-General/CEO of the Trans-Atlantic Business Council, in a recent blog post for Emerging Europe.
“2017 will be a year of personnel transition in the US Administration regardless of who wins the November presidential election,” he added, noting also the expected elections in France and Germany that year, as well as the time it will take to go through the necessary legislative processes on both sides.
“That’s far off for most [small and medium-sized enterprises], many of which will struggle in the current global slowdown,” said Bennett.
ICTSD reporting; “TTIP’s tell-tale 12th round?” POLITICO, 22 February 2016; “EU, US kick off new round of trade talks marred by Greenpeace protest,” EUROPE ONLINE MAGAZINE; “EU aims for free trade pact before Obama goes,” EU OBSERVER, 22 February 2016.