De Gucht: More gaffes with the talks on the EU-US free trade agreement

Athens informal meeting of the EU Foreign Affairs Council (Trade). European Commissioner Karel de Gucht, responsible for Trade (on the left), shakes hands with Greek Deputy Minister Notis Mitarachi, who held the rotating Presidency of the Council. (Greek Presidency photographic library, 28/2/2014).

Athens informal meeting of the EU Foreign Affairs Council (Trade). European Commissioner Karel de Gucht, responsible for Trade (on the left), shakes hands with Greek Deputy Minister Notis Mitarachi, who held the rotating Presidency of the Council. (Greek Presidency photographic library, 28/2/2014).

European Commissioner Karel de Gucht, responsible for Trade, speaking after the informal Athens meeting of the EU Foreign Affairs Council (Trade), attended by the 28 Foreign Trade ministers, failed to accurately report the Council’s opinion on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) that is the free trade agreement currently under negotiation between the Union and the US. De Gucht, as all European Commissioners, participates regularly in the Council of Ministers meetings securing a direct exchange of views, while shaping EU policies. The two Press releases issued after the meeting, one by the Presidency of the Council and the other by the Commissioner, largely diverged in reporting the focal points of the discussion.

It must be reminded that the EU legislation has to be approved by all three EU bodies, the Parliament, the Council and the Commission. The last institution, the EU’s executive arm, introduces the draft laws, but they can’t be finalized without the consent of the other two bodies, in what is called the trilateral negotiation. This means the Commission is obliged by the legislation and the standard practice of the EU procedures to genuinely report what the Council’s position is, in respect to a Commissioner’s proposal. Currently, De Gucht oversees the negotiations on this massive and far-reaching free trade deal with the US, the famous TTIP.

Diverging narratives

Obviously, the paramount importance of the TTIP obliges De Gucht to take seriously into account the relevant policy lines formulated by the Parliament and the Council. Understandably, this obligation is best served if the Commissioner reports authentically in his Press releases the essence of what the Council focused upon and on what it seemed to have agreed. The slightest misinterpretation and misreporting on the Council’s discussion is of course out of the question. Still, De Guchet has failed to have authentically reported on the Athens meeting of the EU Foreign Affairs Council (Trade). Let’s see where an honest and impartial ‘reader’ can identify a contradiction between the two Press Releases issued after the meeting, one by the Council’s Presidency and the other by the Commissioner.

While the Greek Deputy Minister Notis Mitarachi, who held the rotating Presidency of the Council stated in his Press release, that “transparency in transatlantic transactions constitutes a top priority for the Greek Presidency of the Council and for the EU”. The Presidency’s statement also concluded that, “The E.U.’s overall aim is to enable European companies to gain easier and cheaper access to the U.S. and promote transparency”.

De Gucht made no mention of that. His Press release doesn’t contain the slightest reference to “transparency”. The word is missed out. Instead, he stated that he gained “the full support of all ministers and all our member states for the ongoing TTIP negotiation process”. The Greek Presidency makes no reference at all to member states’ unanimous support for De Gucht’s negotiations with the Americans. There is more to it though.

The civil society reacts

During the last months, the Commissioner is confronted with strong reactions from many quarters. Objections are focused amongst other things primarily on the European data protection in the US. The European Parliament has kind of ‘ordered’ De Gucht, not to accept the inclusion of this issue in a trade agreement. The legislators have warned that if the TTIP covers this subject, the Parliament will reject it altogether. On top of that, many and important civil society organisations have pointed out that the European negotiators must be adamant when it comes to health issues, connected with the circulation and the cultivation of Genetically Modified Organisms. Obviously, the right of member states to ban the cultivation of GMOs on their soil must be absolutely safeguarded, along with the right to impose restrictions.

The ‘red line’ that Europe should maintain at all costs in the TTPI negotiations also contains the traditional ban from the EU of animal products with hormones. Such products are produced and marketed freely in the US. All three themes, namely the protection of data and the ban of free cultivation of GMOs and of the imports of American beef with hormones, have gained wide recognition and attract the vivid interest of the European public opinion. The debate around them draws the attention of the entire EU population.

In view of all that, negotiations on the TTIP seem to be held back and according to De Gucht “we do indeed need to ‘step up a gear’ on the full range of issues”. That’s why he found the opportunity to do something that the Commission rarely does. He asked the member states to use their convincing power and what else, their direct and indirect control on the mainstream media to help the Commission ‘negotiate’ those unpopular issues with the Americans and predictably make concessions.

Throw the ball to governments

For that reason, De Gucht said “No one is better qualified than our own governments to explain to their citizens what TTIP is about and just as importantly what TTIP is not about. So, I welcome the support voiced today by all our ministers to actively engage with all stakeholders and all their national citizens on the importance and benefits of this future deal”. He knows very well though, that all EU governments are engaged in very serious discussions with the stakeholders over the TTIP thorny issues, like the above unpopular friction points. That said, what the Commissioner asks here is the green light by the governments to negotiate on those points and possibly make concession contrary to what the public opinion believes and wants.

All in all, it’s more than certain that De Gucht won’t be able to personally oversee the negotiations with the Americans on issues like data protection, GMOs and beef with hormones. Very simply, because this Commission has only a three-month life left, until the May European election. After a new President of the Commission is elected then, the entire college will assume a caretaking character, not allowed to make important decisions. Unless De Gucht manages to keep his portfolio in the new Commission…However in such a case many people will start thinking nasty things about Brussels and Washington.

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