TTIP wins Merkel’s endorsement ahead of 2016 tough deadline

Ms Angela MERKEL, German Federal Chancellor at the European Council on 17 December 2015. Shoot location: Brussels - BELGIUM Shoot date: 18/12/2015 Copyright: No commercial use. Credit 'The European Union'

Ms Angela MERKEL, German Federal Chancellor at the European Council of 17 December 2015. (European Council TVNewsroom, 18/12/2015)

Last year has been definitely a difficult one for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership deal, or else TTIP. It’s not a secret that the huge protests that the EU-US trade agreement had to face this year and that the momentum that other mammoth trade pacts like the TPP have gained have somehow weakened the trans-Atlantic project. However, the new approach by some key leaders could unveil how they have agreed on the unanimous scope of making 2016 the conclusive year.

Merkel’s public endorsement

What the first few days of this new year are saying, however, is that authorities are now determined to change pace, and that the next twelve months could bring big news for the huge trans-Atlantic deal. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said last week that TTIP has more advantages than drawbacks, and could be a model for other free-trade agreements. “No standard already in existence in the European Union today will be lowered in the trade agreement with the US”, she said last Saturday in her weekly podcast. “The TTIP could be an example for other deals”, she also added, where social and ecological standards could play “a more important part”.

The words of the German Chancellor represent an unprecedented case. Surely Chancellor Merkel has already expressed support towards TTIP in the past, but it is the first time a European head-of-state of the importance of Ms. Merkel openly takes a political position in favour of the EU-US trade agreement, and also speaks of a trade model to follow, regardless the controversies around the proposed agreement. After a year in which the EU-US deal has faced a wide lack of support, especially in Germany, Chancellor Merkel’s speech sounds like a public endorsement of TTIP.

EU standards “untouched”

Indeed Germans have been very critical of the trans-Atlantic trade deal in the last few months, with thousands of protesters filling the streets of the main German cities to raise their voices against alleged proposed changes to EU food standards. In her podcast, Chancellor Merkel underlined the importance of keeping high EU standards untouched and called for more transparency in the negotiations in order to win the public’s trust.

2016 deadline

Another point Germany’s Merkel touched during her speech last week was the deadline for the fulfilment of the trade deal, a very hot topic indeed. Although TTIP was initially set to be concluded by the end of 2015, the 2016 deadline gained momentum during the negotiation phase, and the delegations started to work with a view to this deadline. However, in the last few months, despite the open confidence expressed by senior negotiators like US Chief Negotiator, Dan Mullaney, who repeatedly said it was “important” to try to finish the negotiations during the Obama’s Presidency, also the 2016 deadline started to rather look too optimistic.

“If all goes well”

Now German Chancellor Angela Merkel openly backed the “Obama deadline” and said she was “hoping to complete the TTIP deal” during US President Barack Obama’s time in office, which ends this year, as she already said last December in Brussels and was reported by Bloomberg. What now seems to be more solid though is that the two sides seem to be pushing harder on trying to finish talks during the last year of the Obama administration as a planned goal. Bloomberg BNA last week quoted EU Ambassador to the US David O’Sullivan that, if all goes well, TTIP could be concluded “sometime in 2016”, although probably it would not take effect “until 2018”.

Tim Bennett’s confidence

Also Tim Bennett, Director General and chief executive officer of the Transatlantic Business Council, told Bloomberg BNA that wrapping up TTIP was doable by late 2016. Mr. Bennett, who was exclusively interviewed by the European Sting during 2014 European Business Summit in Brussels, said that waiting until 2017 to close negotiations could “close the window of opportunity”. Mr. Bennett expressed “strong scepticism” that TTIP talks could be restarted once the current US administration leaves, as 2017 will be focused “on putting a new Cabinet in place”, as reported by Bloomberg.

Hot points

The truth is that the two sides are still far from the point of reaching a final version of the trade agreement, with many open questions still too hot to handle: food safety issues, regulatory issues and health are still focal matters. When last year, for instance, the British Medical Association’s urged the British government to protect the public character of Britain’s health system from an alleged privatisation of the sector that TTIP would allegedly bring, and incredibly louder alarm bell rang, and it was clear the “battle” was very far from fading.

Also the discussion around the investor-state dispute settlement clause, the mechanism that would allow corporations to sue governments in tribunals if they believe to have been obstructed by local laws, are still very vivid. The European Commission has proposed reforming the ISDS system by establishing an appeal mechanism and an international court and the US will have to review the proposal and react to it, although many believe the point is very important for the Americans.

Big expectations on next round

The next TTIP negotiations round is expected to take place the week commencing February 22 in Brussels and eyes are already set towards the Belgian capital. What is certain is that 2016 will be a crucial year for TTIP, as being the year in which the long awaited finalisation of the agreement either will take place or not.

It’s just how the game will be played in the next 12 months that will totally shape TTIP’s fate.

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