TTIP: Have we lost our democratic privileges?

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.”

Citizen participation

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).

Replies to TTIP Public Consultation

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.”

4 Responses

  1. Elsa Buchanan

    After the article was published, a spokesperson for the European Commission told me:

    ‘It’s important to understand that it was in fact EU government ministers including the UK, who on 14 June 2013 (working in the Council of the EU), concluded the negotiating directives (mandate) for the European Commission to commence formal trade negotiations with the United States of America (TTIP). The member states’ endorsement also set out the objectives the Commission should follow in the trade talks on behalf of the EU. Essentially there are three main elements in the mandate: market access, regulatory convergence and trade rules addressing shared global challenges.”

    “However, the Commission does not operate within a vacuum and throughout the negotiations it will remain in regular contact with Member States minister (in the Council), and keep the European Parliament informed about progress in negotiations.”

    “Once the negotiations are concluded the Commission will publish the draft text of the agreement online but at this point the text is still NOT legally binding.”

    “It is after all MEPs (European Parliament) and EU government ministers (in the Council) who will have the final say on whether to vote in favour or against the final agreement.”

    On transparency, the spokesperson added:

    “Whilst the negotiating mandate for the TTIP negotiations remains a restricted document – necessary to protect EU interests and to keep chances for a satisfactory outcome high – the European Commission is very responsive to the need to make the negotiating process as transparent as possible for members of the public. ”

    “The Commission also communicates in a transparent manner with representatives of civil society (ie non-governmental organisations such as Oxfam, consumer groups, industry associations, and other interested parties) in regular meetings in Brussels. However, this also needs to be balanced with a certain level of confidentiality in order not to compromise the EU’s objectives in the trade deal – which is to create jobs for Europeans.”

    “Stakeholders and other interested parties may also participate in public consultations.”

    Finally, the spokesperson made a point on what TTIP “could bring to the EU and the US.”

    “Perhaps it’s worth concluding with what a successful TTIP negotiation could bring to the EU and US.

    “An independent report from the London-based Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR) entitled ‘Reducing barriers to Transatlantic Trade’, outlines the economic effects of a TTIP for both. It suggests the EU’s economy could benefit by €119 billion a year – equivalent to an extra €545 for a family of four in the EU. Meanwhile, the US economy could gain an extra €95 billion a year or €655 per American family. ”

    “These benefits would cost very little because they would be the result of removing tariffs and doing away with unnecessary rules and bureaucratic hurdles that make it difficult to buy and sell across the Atlantic. The extra economic growth that is expected to come from the TTIP will benefit everyone.”

    “Boosting trade is a good way of boosting our economies by creating increased demand and supply without having to increase public spending or borrowing.”

  2. The TTIP agreement is being held in secret because it would not be accepted by the public, we obviously don’t know for sure what is definitely in the agreement but the messages coming out is that Corporations (through ISDS) will be able to sue a country if they believe their profits have been undermined, say a community didn’t want Fracking, well under this agreement you couldn’t stop it whatever the people vote or think. Our food would not be protected as it is in Europe at the moment, we will be forced to allow the poisons that have been foisted on America by their food industry, the NHS would be taken out of public ownership, open to profit which takes money out of the system which will mean less doctors & nurses and a far poorer service, (have you seen the American system, you really wouldn’t want it here)

  3. With a 30-year moratorium on any TTIP documents being released there is something sinister about this TTIP. For there must be a great deal that they just do not wish the people to know. Indeed one would have thought that it was the documents for pre-WW3 or the national security of the EU years on the cards here and not just a mere trade agreement that will enrich all people within the European Union. Why all the ‘big’ secrecy ?

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