Time for some TTIP honesty and transparency
While US Trade Representative Michael Froman and EU Trade Commissioner Karel de Gucht met in Washington DC for a ‘political stocktake’ on the negotiation of the EU-US Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), I joined 40 TTIP experts, mostly government and business representatives, in a secluded country seat in Sussex for a Wilton Park conference about ‘regulatory coherence’ in TTIP. My location was more architecturally interesting, and the content was probably a bit less showy. More Hogwarts than hogwash, in fact.
The political stocktake was trailed as a big deal, the two main TTIP negotiators getting together (as if they hadn’t met in Davos just last month) to compare notes and take the negotiations to the next level. Only weeks ago, the spin was that there would be concrete agreements, but after two days of talks, USTR Froman was left announcing that US President Obama and EU President Barroso were looking forward to another political stocktake in Brussels at the end of March.
You can tell people are getting worried that the deal won’t get done by the increasingly frenzied statements that progress is (a) being made; and (b) absolutely vital. On Monday, nine European trade ministers wrote a letter to the Financial Times, with an editorial to boot, after two business leaders (including a Mr Bourgeois – I kid you not) did the same last week. Their faith is touching, but it needs to be backed by more evidence before TTIP can win popular support. In part that evidence is about demonstrating how people’s working lives and living standards could be improved, but it also needs more transparency, as US Congressional leaders are demanding by opposing ‘fast track’. Even USTR Froman nodded in that direction in his post-stocktake statement, but without detail.
The discussion that I took part in was premised on the need for more transparency, but it was far more honest about the possible pitfalls of TTIP, too. There was the usual insistence that ‘regulatory coherence’ would not mean standards being lowered. De Gucht’s statement after the stocktake that he wouldn’t allow hormonally-enhanced US meat into the EU was another example, and he said:
“Let me be clear on this very important point: we are not lowering standards in TTIP. Our standards on consumer protection, on the environment, on data protection and on food are not up for negotiation. There is no ‘give and take’ on standards in TTIP.”
But participants at the Wilton Park conference acknowledged that many people don’t believe such pledges. One consumer representative said that doubt was justified, because several business lobbies are demanding precisely that lowering of standards! Others accepted that the assertion that regulatory coherence will benefit consumers is being overplayed, and the view that regulatory coherence means lower prices which means consumers benefit is too simplistic. Consumers also want value and choice: the ‘geographical indicator’ rules in Europe mean you can’t label all fizzy wine as champagne, but a consumer representative recounted her experience of teaching American friends that prosecco was becoming even trendier.
And yet corporate leaders and civil servants at the event were able to point to regulatory divergence that wastes money and effort: different standards for car windscreen de-icers was my favourite example. It’s that divergence that needs to be addressed, not the fact that different levels of protection have resulted from the different systems in the EU and US. Trouble is, how do you restrict the language in a trade deal to regulations that are merely duplicate ways of achieving the same objective, without allowing higher standards in the EU (or, in some cases, the USA) to be undermined by a system of mutual recognition that is simply a race to the bottom, like accepting US chemical safety rules as being equal to Europe’s REACH provisions?
People at the Wilton Park conference were realistic about how difficult it will be to achieve regulatory coherence, and how long it might take (as opposed to the need for speed that politicians and negotiators are urging.) The European single market has taken decades to evolve, and winning vital public support will take time. It will also require the active involvement of civil society – transparency needs to be more than just passive observation, even if that is more than some involved in the negotiations want to allow. It was pointed out that the European single market can’t be viewed in isolation from the social model which provides balance.
I’ve blogged before on regulatory convergence or coherence in TTIP, and the views of the US and European trade union movements is similar: we’re pragmatic. What matters isn’t the process so much as the outcome (US workplace fatality rates are three times those in the EU, which suggests that EU health and safety regulations are simply better, for example.) But we surely can’t leave the regulatory side of TTIP to the professional regulators, the trade negotiators, or the corporate lobby. In alliance with consumers, environmentalists and others, unions need to be making our case.