BRUSSELS —When French President François Hollande went to the United States earlier this month in the first state visit by a French president since 1996, he called for a speedy agreement on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).
“We have everything to gain from going quickly. Otherwise we know there would be a pileup of fears, of threats, of anxiety,” Hollande told a press conference with President Barack Obama at the White House.
What the French president kept silent about in his desire to appear as a trustworthy business partner, was the fact that increasing fears about the potential consequences of the TTIP are actually already piling up in several EU countries, starting with his own: from large consumer groups, trade unions, health and environmental organizations to digital rights activists and grassroots campaigns against fracking. There is a growing movement united against the transatlantic trade agreement.
France is among the European countries where the mobilization against the deal is the strongest. During a debate in the French Senate in January, the government found itself isolated on the topic after facing criticism from speakers from all political sides.
Food and agriculture appears to be one of the most controversial issues. Jean Bizet, from the center-right opposition UMP, expressed concern about the cheese file, as cheese imports increase in France. Marie-Noëlle Lienemann, from the government’s socialist majority, wondered about potential “huge risks for the European beef and pork production.”
Worries about potential consequences on food safety are also strong in Germany. A recent report aired on Germany’s public TV broadcaster ARD cited efforts by U.S. lobbyists to circumvent existing EU bans on bleached chicken, growth hormones in beef and GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Three foodstuffs that have become the symbols of everything the Europeans do not want to see arriving in Europe. Sanitary criteria being considered as non-tariff barriers to trade, they are likely to be negotiated by the two trade partners though.
American companies are pushing hard for the European bans to be lifted. Several American poultry and egg associations expressed their hopes a few months ago to gain a better access to EU markets, denouncing “many unwarranted non-tariff trade barriers that severely limit or prohibit the export of certain U.S. agricultural products to the EU.”
As a result, say the associations, the U.S. has not been able to export poultry to the EU since 1997.
But “when TTIP negotiations are successfully concluded, U.S. poultry producers look forward to marketing over $500 million of products to the EU on an annual basis,” the associations declared.
EU’s chief negotiator on the TTIP, Ignacio Garcia Bercero, has sought to allay fears by declaring that food safety standards were non-negotiable.
“Hormones are prohibited, there is a strict regime of genetically modified organisms and this is not going to go away,” he declared.
Getting rid of food safety standards?
NGOs following the EU-U.S. talks are skeptical about the reassurances.
“We know the corporate wish-list for the talks, which mention all the points that the European commission is now calling red lines – from chlorinated chicken to GMO’s,” said Pia Eberhardt from Corporate Europe Observatory .
According to Eberhardt, several U.S. congress members have said that they are not going to approve a deal that does not open more market access for American agribusiness, including “through getting rid of certain food safety standards.”
Another major controversial issue is the investor-state dispute settlement. This provision would enable U.S. companies investing in Europe to by-pass European courts and directly challenge host governments at international tribunals whenever they find that laws in the area of public health, environmental or social protection infringe their right to do business or interfere with their profits. EU companies investing in the U.S. would have the same rights.
The European Commission says that the mechanism is needed to protect foreign investors from unfair treatment at the hands of governments and avoid discrimination in favor of domestic firms.
Critics retort that investor claims can prevent governments from passing legislation in fields such as environmental and social protection, enabling corporations to ask for potentially unlimited damages in arbitration panels if their profits are adversely affected by new regulations. They also argue that these investment files are tried before business-friendly tribunals composed of corporate lawyers, bypass domestic courts and override the will of parliaments.
Some members of the European Parliament – whose support is needed to adopt the final deal brokered by the Commission on behalf of the EU – have already expressed concern about the mechanism.
“The investor-state dispute settlement mechanism is a massive Trojan horse, which could be used by multinational corporations to whittle away EU standards and regulations across a range of policies from the environment to food safety to social protection,” said French MEP Yannick Jadot, the Greens’ trade spokesman in the European Parliament.
The opposition to the dispute settlement mechanism has become so intense that the European Commission – which alleges “unprecedented public interest in the talks” – decided on Jan. 21 to postpone negotiations on this issue.
European Trade Commissioner Karel de Gucht announced that he wanted to consult the public on the EU proposed text for the investment protection chapter. The paper, probably not the negotiation text but a summary that the Commission will put together specifically for the consultation, will be published in early March. People across the EU will then have three months to comment.
Chlorinated chicken and hormone beef
This may be a smart public relations move to dispel concerns without actually moving away from the intended objective. The Commission speaks about an opportunity to “clarify” investor rights and “improve” the investor-state dispute settlement system, not abandon it.
The European Commission’s consultations tend to be dominated by the corporate sector, the only ones to have the human resources to understand complicated technical dossiers such as this one.
How would the average citizen respond to questions such as: “If you are concerned by barriers to investment, what are the estimated additional costs for your business (in percentage of the investment) resulting from the barriers?” – asked in the framework of a precedent trade consultation.
The Commission also stated that “no other part of the negotiations is affected” by the temporary freeze of the negotiations over the investor rights and that “the TTIP negotiations will continue as planned.” In other words, other controversial aspects of the EU-US trade talks – ranging from food safety regulations and data protection to banking regulations – are not addressed.
This means that another controversial issue will remain unchallenged: a permanent EU-U.S. mechanism for ‘regulatory cooperation’ to assess and possibly adapt new laws and regulations to corporate needs.
In a report entitled “Regulation – none of our business?” published on Dec. 16, 2013, Corporate Europe Observatory exposes how the proposed Regulatory Cooperation Council would allow businesses to be involved from the beginning in the regulatory process well before any public and democratic debate takes place, thereby having excellent opportunities to oppose important initiatives to improve food standards or protect consumers.
Such reforms, if adopted, could seriously undermine existing EU rules on food safety, consumer protection, the environment and many other areas as the proposals give new powers to business to call a halt to proposed legislation that conflicts with their interests or to re-negotiate existing regulations.
“Public outcry shows it might be not possible for EU trade negotiators to brush-off public concern over U.S.-origin GMOs, chlorinated chickens or hormone beef. But even if these products are not included in the negotiation phase of the deal, they could easily be allowed in the long term via this system of regulatory cooperation,” said Kenneth Haar, author of the report.
In other words, it may well be that in the end the Europeans consumers get what they are so keenly trying to avoid: chlorinated chicken, beef with hormones and GMOs.