The eighth round of TTIP negotiations concludes in Brussels amid scepticism and new fears

Ignacio Garcia Bercero and Dan Mullaney

The TTIP duo seems to be having a hard time to get why the EU doesn’t buy. From left to right, Dan Mullaney, Chief US Negotiator for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), and Ignacio Garcia Bercero, Chief EU Negotiator for the TTIP, opened the eight round of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) talks, in Brussels. (EC Audiovisual Services, 06/02/2015)

The eighth round of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), negotiations between the European Union and the United States, concluded last Friday in Brussels. It might be that the entire world is looking towards Ukraine and all media are focusing on the severe crisis between the former Soviet Republic and Russia, but it seems that the coverage and the enthusiasm around the talks are at an all-time low.

The key takeaway of this 8th round is basically that a decisive acceleration and substantial efforts are needed in order to finalise the world’s biggest-ever free trade deal despite growing scepticism on both sides of the Atlantic. Especially on the American side, I would say, with many sources reporting not only scepticism about a possible conclusion, but also a growing disappointment for the delays and the alleged lack of commitment from the European counterparts.

“One of the things we have to convince the American people of is that Europe is as interested in this process as we are”, US Vice President Joe Biden said in a news conference with EU president Donald Tusk, during a visit in Brussels last week. He also underlined the difficulties in overcoming public scepticism about the deal between the world’s two biggest economies, calling for more efforts from both sides in order to have the agreement done.

The meeting was the first since the new European Commission led by Jean-Claude Juncker took office in November, after a four-month hiatus. The European Commissioner for Trade Cecilia Malmström opened the Brussels talks telling the audience that the new Commission wants to bring a “fresh start” to the process. Mr. Ignacio Garcia Bercero, chief EU negotiator, reiterated this concept on the closing day. “We have received a clear instruction to intensify our talks and to make as much progress as possible this year,” he said, wrapping up five days of talks.

His US counterpart, Dan Mulaney, basically echoed him, saying that the two parts are working “full throttle on TTIP”, even though some criticism around the stalemate of the last months filtered. “This week’s round was constructive but we do need to see more concrete progress along the lines that our ministers agreed if we are to turn the fresh start into a reality,” Mr, Mulaney said.

The controversial issue of “regulatory cooperation” has been the key item on the agenda of this week’s discussions, and both the European and American parts reported progresses made in regulatory barriers – such as differences in regulations on food and technical standards – anyway. “The regulatory cluster is the most innovative cluster of TTIP as it goes beyond what either the EU or the US have done in their trade agreements”, said EU’s chief Bercero at the closing press conference.

Chief U.S. negotiator Mullaney also expressed his enthusiasm about the work done: “Our teams made progress in many other areas this week”, he said. “We have made progress in joint negotiating texts”, he stressed, stating that the sides are moving towards “convergence in the texts”.

Still very little is known about the US positions, while in the EU the matter has much more importance instead. A positive ending of the TTIP deal is largely seen as a result of the elimination of non-tariff-barriers to trade (NTBs), which will be removed or reduced by joint EU-US regulatory cooperation. The EU has also presented plans to encourage regulators to cooperate and coordinate their work, as Ms. Malmström said Thursday, with the text expected to be online in the coming days.

The internal discomfort from Member States at Council level appears still quite high though, and protests from trade unions and environmental activists are getting louder. They accuse negotiators of putting the interests of large firms before the protection of citizens, workers and the environment.

Anti-TTIP campaigners gathered in front of the EU Parliament in Brussels on Wednesday, calling on EU leaders to drop the deal. They used an 8 meter-high inflatable Trojan horse to symbolize the risk the EU-US agreement would bring to European people, according to the organisers. Campaigners believe the deal would undermine and weaken democratic rights, putting the interest of large multinational companies before citizens, and lower the quality standards of European food; for example those are higher than the American ones.

Regulatory issues are a big knot for those reasons, but the most contentious part of the deal, the ISDS clause, has not been discussed in this round of talks. The clause would allow corporations to sue governments in tribunals that are above national law provided they “find evidence” of having been obstructed by local laws.

Protests and anti-TTIP campaigns might not bee the only obstacles on the way to a comprehensive agreement though. Opposition might be about to come also from inside the European Parliament, from governments indeed, more than ever before. Many expect Greece’s leftist, freshly-elected government to veto the deal. The Syriza-led Greek government has already raised its voice during the consultations over sanctions on Russia, and it is now expected to oppose to the gigantic EU-US trade agreement. Sources report former Syriza MEPs assuring that a Parliament where Syriza holds the majority will never ratify the deal.

Two more rounds of TTIP talks are planned for the first half of 2015, and the next round would take place in April in the USA, according to the officials. According to a European Commission estimate, TTIP could boost the EU economy by € 120 billion and the US economy by € 95 billion (respectively equal to 0.5% and 0.4% of GDP).

Campaign groups insist that the deal, as it currently stands, will negatively impact the quality of public services, working conditions and food safety in the EU.

Many doubts, a few convictions and one certainty: an agreement is still far from seeing the light.

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