It has long been evident that TAFTA/TTIP is not a traditional trade agreement -- that is, one that seeks to promote trade by removing discriminatory local tariffs on imported goods and services. That's simply because the tariffs between the US and EU are already very low -- under 3% on average
. Removing all those will produce very little change in trading patterns. The original justification for TTIP recognized this, and called for "non-tariff barriers" to be removed as well.
Those "non-tariff barriers" include regulations and standards introduced to protect the public -- for example, through health and safety laws or environmental regulations. Removing those "barriers" in order to increase trade might be great for companies, but increases the social costs through weakened protection for the environment, or greater health risks. The outcry caused by this prospect has led both negotiating parties to insist that TTIP will not lower standards.
But it's hard to see how those non-tariff barriers can be harmonized without a race to the bottom in terms of regulations, since no one is calling for a race to the top. Even "mutual recognition," which would allow both standards to be used, would inevitably see the lower standard becoming the norm because it would be cheaper to implement, and thus offer competitive advantages.
However, a leak back in December 2013 gave a clue about how it might be possible for the US and EU governments to promise that the TAFTA/TTIP agreement would not lower standards, and yet provide a way to dismantle those non-tariff barriers
(pdf). This would be achieved after
TTIP was ratified, through the creation of a new body called the Regulatory Council, which would play a key role in how future regulations were made. Effectively, it would provide early access to all new regulations proposed by the US and EU, allowing corporations to voice their objections to any measures that they felt would impede transatlantic trade. This regulatory ratchet would push standards downwards and reduce costs for business, but only gradually, and after TTIP had come into force -- at which point, nothing could be done about it.
Since then, things have been quiet on the regulatory front, not least because corporate sovereignty in the form of investor-state dispute settlement emerged as the most contentious issue -- in Europe
, at least -- which has rather eclipsed earlier concerns about this supranational regulatory body. But now, in a single week, we have had two important leaks in this area, both confirming those initial ideas sketched out in 2013 are still very much how TAFTA/TTIP aims to bring about the desired regulatory harmonization.
Corporate Europe Observatory obtained a very recent draft copy of the EU's proposals for the chapter covering regulatory co-operation
(pdf), which describes a new transatlantic organization, now called the Regulatory Cooperation Body. Here's Corporate Europe Observatory's summary of how it would work
According to the proposal, as soon as a new regulation is in the pipeline, businesses should be informed through an annual report, and be involved. This is now called "early information on planned acts", until recently called “early warning”. Already at the planning stage, "the regulating Party" has to offer business lobbyists who have a stake in a piece of legislation or regulation, an opportunity to “provide input”. This input "shall be taken into account" when finalising the proposal (article 6). This means businesses, for instance, at an early stage, can try to block rules intended to prevent the food industry from marketing foodstuffs with toxic substances, laws trying to keep energy companies from destroying the climate, or regulations to combat pollution and protect consumers.
Along with this new opportunity for lobbyists to try to shape, slow down or even block new regulations, the EU proposes to hand them a powerful weapon -- the impact assessment:
New regulations should undergo an "impact assessment", which would be made up of three questions (article 7, reduced from seven in the earlier proposal):
- How does the legislative proposal relate to international instruments?
- How have the planned or existing rules of the other Party been taken into account?
- What impact will the new rule have on trade or investment?
Those questions are primarily tilted towards the interests of business, not citizens. Thanks to the “early information” procedure, businesses can make sure their concerns are included in the report, and should it go against their interests, the report will have to cite a detrimental impact on transatlantic trade.
As Corporate Europe Observatory points out, the only criteria taken into account are impacts on trade or investment. So, for example, new environmental rules might well do wonders for reducing air pollution, but if they have an adverse effect on US or EU companies' sales or investments, they would be marked as undesirable. This is likely to have a severe chilling effect on bringing in new standards that protect the public but might impose new costs on business.
The other leak, obtained by the Greens MEP Michel Reimon, concerns regulatory co-operation in the field of finance
(pdf). This is a contentious area: the US is reluctant to harmonize financial regulations through TAFTA/TTIP
because Europe's are weaker; for the same reason, the European finance industry is keen to use TAFTA/TTIP as a way of undermining America's more stringent rules. The leak is of note for the following section:
The Joint EU/US Financial Regulatory Forum shall agree on detailed guidelines on mutual reliance adapted for each specific area of financial regulation no later than one year from the entry into force of this agreement.
That is, the European Commission wants the US to sign up to TTIP without any specification of exactly how the new Financial Regulatory Forum will work, or what powers it will have. This seems a clear effort to sneak in elements later that the US is currently resisting.
What these important leaks confirm is that the regulatory co-operation that lies at the heart of TAFTA/TTIP would undermine sovereignty on both sides of the Atlantic. The Regulatory Cooperation Body would provide an important new forum for corporate lobbyists to intervene even earlier in the life of proposed rules and regulations than they do now -- and long before lawmakers have a chance to express their views. The end-result is likely to be an impoverishment not just of public policy-making, but of democracy itself.
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