TTIP "Fresh Start" Efforts Continue as New EU Council Chief Takes Office

4 December 2014

New European Council President Donald Tusk, who took office on 1 December, has highlighted the EU-US partnership as being “the backbone of our community of democracies,” while suggesting that strengthening bilateral ties across the Atlantic, such as through trade, will be one of four main indicators of the 28-nation bloc’s future success.

“Both we and the Americans are responsible for the future of our relations. The year ahead will be crucial,” he said during Monday’s handover ceremony, where he formally took over from outgoing Council chief Herman Van Rompuy.

The former Polish premier had a phone call the same day with US President Barack Obama in which the two leaders discussed the coming work needed to advance negotiations toward a finalised Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), among other priorities.

“The TTIP is not just about free trade; it is an expression of our geopolitical partnership,” Tusk said after receiving the call. “We agreed to step up our efforts towards reaching agreement.”

On the White House’s side, a readout of the call stated that President Barack Obama “underscored the importance of continued US-EU cooperation and noted the need for policy action to strengthen European economic growth,” while both sides affirmed their “determination to achieve an ambitious and comprehensive” agreement.

Other topics that came up during the call, the White House said, included the ongoing crisis in Ukraine and continued deterioration of ties with Russia – both of which have been touted as additional reasons for Brussels and Washington to strengthen their own partnership through a trade deal.

Transitions

The handover to Tusk brings to a close the various leadership changes that have been seen across the EU institutions in recent months, including the election of a new European Parliament and the appointment – and approval – of a new College of Commissioners.

The European Council President holds a 2.5 year initial term with the possibility of a one-time renewal, and is responsible for chairing the Council and driving its work forward. The role also involves cooperation with the Commission and regular reports to the Parliament on Council meetings.

The Council itself is tasked with setting the 28-nation bloc’s political direction and priorities, and consists of EU heads of state and government, together with the Council and Commission Presidents. This direction includes, for instance, agreeing on mandates for EU trade talks.

Whether the completion of such transitions – and the conclusion of the US midterm elections last month – will be enough to provide the trade talks with renewed political momentum remains to be seen, as observers question whether the negotiations are already slowing significantly after barely over a year.

The make-up of the new European Parliament has been one source of concern, given the number of seats won by eurosceptic parties earlier this year. The May polls saw approximately a quarter of the 751 seats go to these groups, in a massive shift in the EU legislative body. (See Bridges Weekly, 28 May 2014)

In outlining his priorities on Monday, Tusk noted that the EU is currently facing a series of threats against the Union, both from the inside and outside, though not explicitly referring to the potential effects on the TTIP negotiations.

“Today, not only are eurosceptics questioning the EU’s value, the Union even has enemies. Politics has returned to Europe, history is back, and such times need leadership and political unity,” he said.

He also called for “ruthless determination” to resolve the economic crisis at long last, and to increase the Union’s strength abroad, not just at home.

When the TTIP talks were launched in June 2013, officials had indicated that they hoped to see a deal completed by the end of 2014. Yet despite seven rounds of talks, most of the advances seen in recent months have appeared to be of technical nature, with thornier topics likely requiring major political decisions still unresolved. (See Bridges Weekly, 20 June 2013)

Officials are now saying that the “window of opportunity” for clinching a deal will likely be late 2015 or early 2016, before the US general election kicks into high gear. Voters will be choosing a new President to the White House – the first in eight years – in November 2016, in what is expected to be a hotly-contested election.

Malmström outlines “fresh start,” transparency initiatives to EU Parliament

Some new EU parliamentarians of the eurosceptic groups have said in recent months that they intend to push back against the TTIP effort, and many lawmakers across various parties have asked for the Commission to undertake further efforts regarding transparency in the talks.

On Wednesday, new European Commissioner for Trade Cecilia Malmström – who took over from  Karel De Gucht in early November – testified to the European Parliament’s International Trade Committee (INTA), with the goal of both answering questions about this planned TTIP “fresh start,” and outlining a series of new transparency-related efforts being undertaken by the EU executive branch. (See Bridges Weekly, 27 November 2014)

These measures, which were recently approved by the College of Commissioners, include allowing all EU parliamentarians access to TTIP texts, rather than just INTA members. The Commission also plans to make public more of the EU’s negotiating texts that it is already sharing with parliamentarians and member states.

Furthermore, the EU executive branch will also make public on a regular basis a list of TTIP documents being shared with the other EU institutions.

This “fresh start” will include more transparency, the EU trade chief said, in order to better demonstrate to European citizens “what’s in there for them” in a TTIP deal. While some lawmakers reportedly welcomed the new efforts, others raised the question of whether more could be done, particularly given that the publication of some documents would depend on obtaining US approval.

Malmström reportedly told lawmakers on Wednesday that the Commission is already publishing those documents it promised to make public online, and will make these “user friendly,” according to updates on the INTA debate published by the committee’s press service on Twitter.

ISDS consultation results due this month

The results of the public consultation held earlier this year on the controversial investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanism will also be published before the end of 2014, with the EU trade chief confirming on Wednesday that this would occur “a few weeks before Christmas.”

The Commission will subsequently discuss the results with both EU parliamentarians and the Council in order to figure out a common approach in this area by next spring, though whether this may involve the resumption of the investor protection component of the TTIP talks – suspended since early 2014 – was not made clear.

The 3 December meeting was Malmström’s first since assuming her new role, though the Swedish politician previously testified in front of INTA as part of her confirmation hearing in September. (See Bridges Weekly, 2 October 2014)

Next week: trade chiefs to meet in Washington

As part of this effort to re-energise the talks, the new EU trade chief is set to hold a second meeting on TTIP with her American counterpart, US Trade Representative (USTR) Michael Froman, next week in Washington.

What will be on the agenda for their 9 December meeting is not yet clear. However, Malmström and Froman had already met in November for an initial discussion on the state of the talks, with the officials afterward pledging a “fresh start” on the negotiations. (See Bridges Weekly, 27 November 2014)

The next TTIP negotiating round will not be until early February. This one will be held in Brussels, officials say.

ICTSD reporting; “MEPs debate TTIP transparency,” DEMOCRACY LIVE, 3 December 2014.

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