The trade ministers of the European Union, after their plenary meeting in Bratislava last Friday, may not have found a way to revive the interest around TTIP, but surely all agreed on one thing: negotiations on the EU-US free trade agreement will almost certainly not be finished before the end of Obama’s presidency. The key message that last week’s meeting delivered is indeed not encouraging for TTIP backers, as the growing appeal for the parallel EU-Canada trade pact and the uncertainty over the US next presidency may represent the next big challenges.
Last week’s scenario
Just one week ago, trade officials on both sides of the Atlantic were expressing hope to see not only the CETA, but also the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership sealed before the end of this year. Then the trade ministers from twelve EU countries made an open call to save TTIP and decided to send from Bratislava a formal letter to EU’s trade commissioner Cecilia Malmström. The formal request before the trade summit in the Eastern European capital was indeed to focus the attention ahead of the meeting on how to make progress in negotiations and secure a pre-agreement before the end of the Obama era.
A “natural pause” to come
Unfortunately, all that Commissioner Malmström could admit about TTIP at the end of the meeting, was that “all ministers expressed their doubts about being able to conclude this before the end of the Obama presidency, and indeed it looks increasingly unlikely”. “If we do not conclude TTIP before January 19, then there will be a natural pause”, she also noted. Peter Ziga, Slovakia’s trade Minister, reinforced the message: “The debate showed that a conclusion of the TTIP negotiations by the end of the year is unrealistic”, he said.
Progress on CETA
On the contrary, the European ministers backed a plan to sign up to the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with Canada, and took “further steps” towards a 2016 finalisation. Despite some concerns raised by some countries like France and particularly Austria, the trade ministers gave fresh impetus to CETA, and agreed the two sides would produce a binding declaration to list all limits of the pact in order to dispel public concerns.
“There was a great willingness to sign the agreement in October”, Germany’s economy minister and vice-chancellor Sigmar Gabriel said. The ministers are now expected to convene an extraordinary meeting on October 18, Reuters reported, in order to have the deal ready to be signed during the visit of the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to Brussels the following week, on October 27.
Hence, the TTIP project finds now itself on the brink of a long suspension, after the unofficial completion date target of 2016 looks basically missed, and the CETA has gained momentum. However, these may not be the only news that the Bratislava meeting delivered last week. Indeed for the first time EU senior officials openly spoke of relaunching the TTIP plan as a solution to the no-go situation that the whole project has reached.
A new name
The Austrian Economy Minister Reinhold Mitterlehner was the first one to call for the negotiations to be relaunched next year under a new name, when the new US administration will be in place. Mitterlehner said that TTIP has now such “negative connotations” that the best plan was to “completely relaunch it” with a new name after the US elections. Also Finland’s Trade Minister Kai Mykkanen, whose country is historically one of the main supporters of the EU-US deal, reportedly opened the door to a possible re-issue of the TTIP talks under a new name. “There are so many unreasonable fears and maybe they are tied to the name TTIP”, he said, as reported by Reuters.
The presidential bet
After three and a half long years and fourteen longer rounds of negotiations it seems that the decision on the gigantic EU-US trade agreement will be at the hands of either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, the two candidates for the US presidential elections. Commissioner Malmström too made it clear and said that any new improvements to the proposed pact “very much depends on who will be the next U.S. president and how he or she will see TTIP in his or her priorities”. “We need to get it right, but it makes all the sense in the world, still, to have an agreement with the US”, she added.
It is already clear that, after having lost the possibility of securing a deal before Barack Obama leaves the office, the speed of negotiations will suffer a dramatic slowdown, also due to the fact that the EU is soon due to start negotiating new conditions with the UK after Brexit. The 15th round of TTIP talks, scheduled to be held in New York City, from 3 – 7 October, is expected to take place as previously planned though. EU top leaders are also expected to discuss TTIP at their next summit in October, while trade ministers are due to meet again in November, after the US election will have taken place.
By then the results of the US election will be known and so the world will witness whether TTIP’s new name could also add an extra “T” for Trump in the future: ‘TTTIP’