In the maze of the European Parliament offices, there is a little room that houses all the folders related to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP, the trade agreement between Europe and the United States. Or, at least, the documents related to the American side of the deal are there — kept secret, just like Washington wants them.
This is one of the many characteristics of a long, shadowy negotiation process, whose details are kept in the strictest of confidence.
More than two years into serious talks, and we’re still near the beginning of a proposed free trade deal that has experienced flare-ups, slowdowns, protests and doubts. Now it finds itself pigeonholed in a sensitive historical moment for the Americans: weighted by the recent agreement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and by the upcoming U.S. presidential election.
All this, together with other factors, means that the TTIP will probably not be completed — not even its negotiation phase — in 2016 as promised.
The Volkswagen effect
The recent Volkswagen scandal has given the U.S. the latitude to throw its weight around and make bigger demands.
The European Union is backed into a corner for the moment, thanks to the German car manufacturer undermining the supposedly high safety standards of the old continent. Meanwhile, with TPP out of the way for now, the U.S. can get back to pushing for a deal that favors its own economy.
The U.S. Ambassador to the European Union, Anthony Gardner, stated as much this week in a meeting about the TTIP organized in Brussels. He said the U.S. was willing to hold up the treaty if the E.U. doesn’t meet its demands to allow data to flow westward.
The admission was significant, considering E.U. negotiators seem to have underestimated the issue, included in the chapter on information technology and e-commerce. Gardner’s statement comes after a European ruling that struck down “safe harbor” data sharing with the U.S. because, in light of the NSA scandal, private information is not very safe at all.
The condition that complicates everything
The partnership between the U.S. and the E.U. would liberalize trade relations, with an eye on prices, investment and key sectors such as food. The American insistence on housing immense amounts of European data raises a condition that could greatly complicate negotiations, which are verging on an indefinite standstill.
And the stall could last for some time. Washington is already in campaign season, and officials are reluctant to negotiate anything until a new administration is installed.
A fresh round of negotiations, however, will take place next week in Miami. Paolo De Castro, a European TTIP rapporteur on the agriculture committee (and a Member of European Parliament for Pd, the Italian Democratic Party), pointed out that the meeting will be the first new test of America’s attitude toward a deal: Will they try to delay, or will the completion of the TPP agreement free up negotiators to work on Europe?
Bernard Lange, a German in the Social Democratic Party and rapporteur on the TTIP international trade committee, doesn’t mince words. “We have been in dialogue with the other party since July 2013, but we haven’t seen concrete results,” he said. “Currently we have very clear points on which we are far apart … but there is no real negotiation.”
He said American interests are “focused on a few areas,” including agriculture. The U.S. wants to bring genetically modified food into European markets, “but this cannot happen because we have strict laws about it,” Lange said. “Without any doubt it is their first concern.” After that seems to be information, telecommunications and privacy, followed by the automotive sector. “The Volkswagen scandal illustrates that the U.S. standards have independence and control function” that could ultimately prove the incompatibility of U.S.-E.U. procedures.
Workers’ rights is another question: “We need compliance with labor law conditions,” Lange said. “And the U.S. in this regard is very reluctant.”
A more technical element of the friction is the issue of investment protection.
The Investor State Dispute Settlement, a neutral arbitration procedure known by its initials ISDS, has been rejected, and the E.U. has proposed an alternative for resolving disputes between companies and governments. The U.S. is considering it, but rumors in Washington suggest negotiators aren’t thrilled with the E.U. offer.
And then there’s the popular dissent. In recent weeks the petition signatures and the demonstration of millions of people have made it impossible to ignore European citizens’ opposition to this agreement. Protests continued on Thursday in Brussels. And yet they’ve never been consulted about it.