EU Trade Ministers come together in a desperate attempt to save TTIP

informal-meeting-of-27-heads-of-state-and-government-in-bratislava-roundtable-on-the-danube

The heads of state or government of the 27 member states meet on 16 September 2016 in Bratislava to continue their reflection on how to give impetus to further reform and to the development of an EU with 27 member states. The meeting includes two working sessions and an informal lunch. Shoot location: Bratislava – SLOVAKIA Shoot date: 16/09/2016 Copyright: European Union

After having been the stage for a critical European Union Summit, the very first one in a 27-member-States shape, Bratislava is now preparing to harbour a delicate meeting of the bloc’s trade ministers next week. The agenda will be formally all focused on the existing trans-Atlantic trade agreements, the TTIP with the United States and the recently-agreed CETA between the EU and Canada, in a crucial moment for both trade deals. The growing speculation that talks about the former has been lead to a halt, and the voices around growing turmoil over the Canada-EU trade deal inside local parties have opened a new season of wide scepticism around the future of trade in the EU.

Background

The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP, is surely not living its best moment these days. After months of poor progress in the negotiations between the two superpowers, a sort of lack of political support became more and more evident in the past weeks, until a point in which it became undeniable. When at the end of August the German Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel said that talks between the US and the EU over TTIP had “de facto failed”, despite an official declaration that negotiations had ended without an agreement, the entire world saw clearly how critical that moment was. Mr. Gabriel’s declaration came only days after France’s trade minister, Matthias Fekl, called for an end to trade negotiations and said he will formally not support TTIP any longer.

EU’s trade commissioner Cecilia Malmström met last Thursday with the US trade representative Michael Froman in Brussels to formally discuss the ongoing negotiations. That meeting looked more like a bid to save the mammoth EU-US trade pact. “We had a good meeting where we reviewed the substantial progress being made and discussed next steps for moving forward”, she declared after the meeting. “We have directed our teams to make as much progress as possible during the next round, scheduled for the week of October 3 in New York”, she added.

Last call from Trade Ministers

TTIP backers seem a bit more worried about deadlines and time though, as the common feeling is that the EU-US free trade deal will collapse if a preliminary agreement isn’t secured before US President Barack Obama leaves office at the end of the year. This is the main reason why Ministers from twelve trade-oriented EU countries decided to give a final push and throw their weight behind negotiations over the trans-Atlantic trade deals, before the 22-23 Sept meeting takes place. In a letter sent to the EU’s Commissioner for Trade Cecilia Malmström on Wednesday, those Ministers urged her to focus their attention on how to soothe the existing differing points with Washington, and stressed that trade is a key factor for the fight against unemployment in the region.

“Europe needs to demonstrate clear leadership in negotiating free trade agreements if we are to generate the growth we need to meet future challenges”, they underscored, adding that the bloc must push for a trade policy that also stands up for workers’ rights, the environment and people’s health, as described by the Wall Street Journal. The signatories of the letter include the trade Ministers from Sweden, Finland and the Baltic countries, as well as from Spain, Portugal, the Czech Republic, Ireland and the UK, although the missing signatures from France and Germany immediately raised concerns.

Germany’s huge protests

The Bundesrepublick seems indeed to have become one the hottest battle fields for TTIP, as Mr. Gabriel’s words last August may as well be the indicator of the public feeling. Indeed last weekend Germany was also the stage of huge demonstration in its major cities, where hundreds of thousands took to the streets, in protest of pending trade deals with the United States and Canada.

Rallies against the controversial pacts took place in Hamburg, Stuttgart, Cologne, Leipzig, Frankfurt, and the capital of Bavaria, Munich, where thousands met on the central Odeonsplatz square and adjoining Ludwigstrasse under heavy rain. The organisers said that more than 320,000 people turned out in total. Protesters argue that the trade agreements, more specifically the TTIP, would lower European standards as regards food and health, and would allow multi-national groups to sue EU governments.

CETA’s delicate phase

And while TTIP backers are mourning, CETA supporters may also face a few headaches at this particular moment of the year. The negotiations around free-trade agreement between Canada and the EU were concluded in 2014 and the pact is due to be ratified by the council of ministers next month prior to being debated by the Strasbourg parliament. But what seemed to be just a formality until a few weeks ago now seems to be bit more delicate, for a few reasons. Certainly the protests in Germany, mixed with the growing scepticism around trade agreements in the entire bloc seemed to have become an alarming element for the CETA as well.

The SPD knot

Secondly, the many open points inside the local governments and parties across Europe may have a heavy weight in that matter. Germany seems to be once again critical, with the left wing of the Social Democrats party (SPD) in Germany now being very sceptical about the benefits of the deal. A gathering in Germany of SPD members next week at a special congress could force Minister Sigmar Gabriel, who is also SPD’s leader, to reverse his historic support towards CETA, shuffling cards once again.

In this situation, this week’s Bratislava meeting of the EU’s trade ministers becomes an incredibly crucial point to shape the future of big trade deals, and the letter from the twelve Ministers indeed forms a declaration of intent. “The TTIP is an opportunity to shape the rules of trade in the 21st Century”, the twelve wrote, adding that the EU-Canada pact “is a broad and deep agreement based on the reality of today’s trade patterns”.

“We are now looking forward to the signing of the EU-Canada trade deal on 27 October and provisional application of the agreement”, the twelve Ministers stressed, making their statement sound like a hope rather than a firm political point.

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