By Elsa Buchanan
As the European Commission and the US are busy negotiating a free trade agreement, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), campaigners say they are increasingly worried citizens are losing their democratic privileges.
While corporations are looking forward to an improved trade and regulatory cooperation between the US and EU, the opposition -which includes Pan-European civil society groups – is concerned that regulatory convergence will grind down hard-won social and environmental standards.
“The thing with TTIP is not only about the secrecy around the negotiations, but there is also the secrecy of the process itself which is incredibly shocking,” said Alexandra Runswick, director of the campaign group Unlock Democracy.
In the absence of any public participation or official documentation – the sixth round of negotiations are being held behind closed doors in Brussels by US and EU representatives – Runswick condemned the fact that the only extensive information available has come from leaked documents.
In contrast, the European Commission believes it is keeping the public well informed.
A spokesperson of European Commission set out to demonstrate this with links to Q&As, factsheets, transcriptions of speeches from Karel De Gucht, the European Commissioner for Trade, or so-called ‘State of play’ documents ahead of the current round of negotiations.
“So I don’t think it’s fair to say that details on the TTIP talks can only be found in a few leaked documents,” the spokesperson said, albeit adding: “And yes, there might be a point that needs to be addressed, that we need to clarify, or issue more information.”
Coincidently, in his speech, De Gucht explained “many people have alleged that the negotiations have been conducted so far in secrecy”.
One of the sources of confusion is the fact that the negotiation directives given by the Council to the Commission have not been made officially public, he explained, adding he was “deeply convinced we should change that”.
However, De Gucht also stated: “It is true that when I meet with my counterpart Ambassador Froman, we prefer to do it without TV cameras being present. If you want to build confidence you also need a certain degree of confidentiality.”
While he acknowledged the Commission historically has conducted negotiations “without that much media attention”, he claimed it was “not because we wanted to keep them secret, but because the interest was much lower”.
A member of No to TTIP, a community-led campaign group, however, disagreed: “While corporation lobbyists are playing an integral role in negotiations, the public has been shut out. All negotiators must sign non-disclosure agreements. There is no access to the draft text of the agreement – even for MPs- so most of what we know is from leaked documents.”
When confronted with this statement, the spokesperson for the European Commission explained the public opinion had, in fact, been sought.
Indeed, the Commission did roll out a public consultation – although this only a propos the most controversial measure, the creation of Investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) courts. The initial 90-days consultation period was extended from 27 March 2014 to 13 July 2014.
Interestingly, the consultation received 149,399 responses. If put in context, the EU had an estimated 507.4 million citizens as at January 1st – that’s 0.029 per cent of the EU’s population participating in the consultation.
The preliminary statistical report highlighted the largest number of replies was received from the United Kingdom (52 008 replies or 34.81 per cent total responses), followed by Austria, Germany, France, Belgium, Netherlands and Spain, which together account for 97 per cent of the replies.
The European Commission also reported the vast majority of replies (more than 99 per cent) were submitted by individuals, while a large number of replies were submitted collectively through actions coordinated within the civil society.
An additional 569 organisations also responded to the consultation, many of these being NGOs (see graph).
But, as the figures show, the dialogue has failed to include a majority of the population. Gabriel Siles-Brügge, lecturer in Politics at the University of Manchester and political economist researching trade, has stated the increasingly troubled EU-US free trade talks ‘highlight the need for more transparency and participation in trade discussions’.
In his view, EU trade negotiators have been insulated from both public and legislative scrutiny by a policy making process which has delegated a great deal of the authority to them.
“Negotiations are conducted in secret and the European Parliament’s only power is the ‘nuclear option’ of voting down an entire trade agreement. Meanwhile, business interests enjoy privileged access to policymakers, whom they supply with the ‘necessary information’ on trade barriers for the latter to formulate a negotiating position.”
“The fact remains, however, that trade policy making, especially in a supranational body such as the EU, has traditionally been the domain of technocrats and lobbyists – united by a common vision of increased free trade,” the self-proclaimed critical europhile said.
A democratic referendum?
On social media platforms, campaigners are calling for a referendum to be instituted in the UK, to ratify the treaty once negotiated by both parties.
A clause under the European Union Act 2011 requires a referendum before the government could agree to change the current EU treaties, or to certain EU decisions, so as to transfer power to the EU. Yet, some less far-reaching changes can be approved without a referendum if deemed not ‘significant’. It is up to a minister to decide whether power is being transferred over to the EU, or not. This decision can be challenged in court.
But Alexandra Runswick, director of the campaign group Unlock Democracy, explained that under the current UK law, there is no formal requirement for citizens to participate in a treaty referendum.
“Politically, in terms of the EU, we are now getting to that stage where the UK would have to have a referendum, but that is a very recent development, and would not apply here.”
Professor Iain Begg, associate fellow on Chatham Houses’ Europe Programme, and professorial research fellow at the European Institute of the London School of Economics and Political Science, explained he doesn’t anticipate the UK to referendum its citizens.
“We have been referendumed twice in the past thirty years,” he pointed out. “It’s hardly a routine.”
When asked whether the treaty should be ratified via referendum, in the same way that the UK could be asked whether or not to remain in the EU in 2017, Begg explained the conditions couldn’t be dissimilar, and thus should only require a Parliamentary consultation – not a public referendum.
“We’ve been in this trade deal [with the EU] since the Second World War and that was passed in Parliament. You ask Parliament to make those decisions and you don’t call for a referendum every time things move, because people would get extremely bored of that. I don’t see a break from what’s happened previously in this,” Begg said.
The specialist in political economy of European integration and EU economic governance also highlighted the lack of information was “highly usual for negotiations”, likening it to a game of cards.
“But if you take on board the mainstream media telling them what you are planning to do, you are showing your hand. It’s a general principle that is widely accepted.”