After last Wednesday's debate, the European Parliament passed a resolution on the subject of NSA surveillance, which included the following mild wrist-slap:
Expresses, while confirming its ongoing support for transatlantic efforts in the fight against terrorism and organised crime, serious concern over PRISM and other such programmes, since, should the information available up to now be confirmed, they may entail a serious violation of the fundamental right of EU citizens and residents to privacy and data protection, as well as of the right to private and family life, the confidentiality of communications, the presumption of innocence, freedom of expression, freedom of information, and the freedom to conduct business
But instead of postponing the imminent TAFTA/TTIP negotations, as some MEPs had called for, it limited itself to the following rather feeble action:
Instructs its Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs to conduct an in-depth inquiry into the matter in collaboration with national parliaments and the EU-US expert group set up by the Commission and to report back by the end of the year
And so the TAFTA/TTIP talks will go ahead as planned. We already knew roughly what will be discussed during those negotiations, but no details. That's now changed, thanks to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy getting hold of the European Commission's initial position papers on TAFTA/TTIP. These aren't exactly top secret -- the US side will receive a copy ahead of the first round of talks -- but they wouldn't normally have been released, and so they offer a unique opportunity to see the thinking here, at least from the EU side.
In essence, the 65-page document tries to flesh out the general idea of "promoting regulatory compatibility/convergence", which is supposed to deliver all those benefits that TAFTA/TTIP advocates have been touting. But once you get down to the nitty-gritty, as revealed by the papers, things turn out to be rather more difficult. The biggest problem, noted by many commentators, is that there aren't really many trade barriers that can be removed, because trade is already pretty free between the US and EU. That throws the emphasis on non-trade barriers -- things like differing local standards that make it hard to sell the same product in both the US and EU.
But as the position paper makes clear, it's going to be extremely challenging bringing these into line. In some areas, that's because the approaches of the two sides are so different as to be totally incompatible. That's the case for chemicals, for example, as the document itself admits:
Both industry associations and governments are aware that neither full harmonisation nor mutual recognition seem feasible on the basis of the existing framework legislations in the US and EU: REACH (Regulation (EC) 1907/2006) and TSCA (Toxic Substances Control Act) are too different with regard to some fundamental principles.
The best that EU advisers can come up with is the idea of "Promoting alignment in classification and labelling of chemicals", which is hardly going to generate billions of extra trade activity.
There's more scope for compatibility in the area of pharmaceuticals, but even here among the relatively few options are things like "allowing the exchange of confidential information and trade secret information between EU Member States/EU institutions and FDA." Of course, that could be achieved more easily by making all key health and safety data for drugs freely available, as the AllTrials campaign is seeking to bring about.
The really revealing section concerns "SPS" -- "sanitary and phytosanitary" issues. Behind that rather mysterious name lies a huge range of economic activity, including agriculture and food. And that, of course, means GM organisms -- already flagged up as one of the key areas that is likely to be problematic. That's because former USTR Ron Kirk stated quite bluntly:
"For us, everything is on the table, across all sectors, including across the agricultural sector, whether it is GMOs or other issues," Kirk said.
But in Europe, GMOs are often regarded as "Frankenfood", which is probably why the European Commission was careful to insist in its Q&A on the negotiations:
Basic laws, like those relating to GMOs or which are there to protect human life and health, animal health and welfare, or environment and consumer interests will not be part of the negotiations.
However, the policy paper does contain a few hints about how that apparent contradiction might be resolved, such as the following:
This chapter -- as part of the FTA discussions within the TTIP -- will seek to build upon the key principles of the World Trade Organization (WTO) SPS Agreement, including the requirements that each side's SPS measures be based on science
"Based on science" sounds reasonable, but it is actually the key concept that US has been using in order to export its food standards to the world. Here, for example, is the US 2013 Report on Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Barriers to Trade:
Underlying these cross-cutting SPS trade barriers (and many of the other unwarranted SPS barriers described in section IV) is the disturbingly common failure by some U.S. Trading partners to base their SPS measures on science
The inclusion of this phrase in the European Commission's position paper looks like a signal to the US side that it will cave on GM foods if the "based on science" argument is invoked as a justification -- after all, no reasonable person could be against science, could they? That readiness to capitulate seems to be confirmed by another carefully-chosen phrase later on, in a section headed "Marking and labelling" where we read:
consideration should be given to measures to inhibit the use of markings that may mislead consumers
Again, that sounds pretty innocent, until you compare it with the following statements made by Monsanto. The first comes during its campaign against dairies that labelled their products as free from the genetically-engineered recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST) hormone when it claimed that:
certain milk labels and promotions that differentiate milk based on farmer use of POSILAC bovine somatotropin are misleading to consumers
More recently, during the heated battle in California to label foods that contained GM ingredients (which was defeated by massive lobbying from GM producers), Monsanto wrote:
Proponents of the California labeling proposal are misleading people about the safety of food in the marketplace, and their opinions are in stark contrast with leading health associations and government agencies.
"Misleading" here actually means "telling people the facts about what their food contains", and the appearance of this particular phrase in the EU document suggests that the European Commission is willing to allow companies like Monsanto to use the same loaded term to fight GM labelling in Europe too once TAFTA/TTIP comes into force. Presumably this will be offered as a concession in return for other items that are more important to the Commission than preserving European citizens' right to know what is in their food.
Aside from these subtle signals, the other striking element in the document is the constant insistence on transparency, as here, for example:
The EU considers that transparency and predictability of the regulatory and standard-setting process is key to trade and growth in general.
For negotiations that are taking place behind closed doors, with no chance for citizens to follow what's going on, or to offer input, that's deeply ironic, of course. We're fortunate that there are civic-minded people with access to TAFTA/TTIP documents who are prepared to leak them so that we can see some of what is going on. Let's hope the example of Ed Snowden inspires more such leaks, since there seems precious little hope of the EU or US publishing those documents, or treating the 800 million-strong public they purport to represent with anything but arrogance and contempt in this regard.
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