First peek into the TTIP talks

More access to some EU texts, but lack of US positions reveal only half the story

I was expecting to see a queue behind the reading room where selected TTIP documents are available for MEPs, but no. I was the first MEP. An Austrian diplomat had been in the room that morning.

With the Treaty of Lisbon, the most significant increase in the powers of the Parliament was the right to accept or reject international agreements. This implies that the MEPs should be “immediately and fully informed at all stages of the procedure of negotiations on international agreements”.

Since the beginning of the year, the Commission made its reading room available for all other MEPs, not only the members of the lead committee on International Trade.

Prior to the visit I had to receive training on confidentiality procedures by Parliament’s classified information’s unit. I was warned that Commission officials had even been sentenced to prison for breaching confidentiality. I suppose that was needed for a chilling effect.

The reading room, which could be used for up to four hours, had to be booked in advance. I also had to specify the documents I wanted to see. Electronic devices were prohibited, but notes could be taken on watermarked paper. The documents represented mid-level confidentiality, meaning category “restricted”.

To place myself on the map of the negotiations I had requested to see the report on the previous, i.e. 7th round held in Washington DC in November. Scanning it through, it became clear that this is not any ordinary free trade agreement. It covers a wide variety of issues that affect people’s lives from chemicals, cosmetics, and testing on animals to telecommunications, e-commerce, trade secrets and public access to information.

The biggest benefit of the agreement, up to 70 per cent, is expected to come from the harmonisation of legislation and demolishing of “unnecessary” regulation. What is “unnecessary” is obviously far from being technical only. How many legislative proposals has Juncker’s Commission considered redundant and pulled out as “unnecessary” because they might cause problems in the TTIP negotiations?

Bringing two different regulatory environments together will be a very complex task. For instance, some of the EU-produced cosmetics (eg. UV-shields) do not currently meet the US safety requirements and their placing on the market requires further assessment. The Americans may require animal testing, but the EU cannot compromise its testing ban. One way to go around it could be to convince the Americans about OECD alternatives to animal testing.

The US has, from the very start, made a great effort to oppose and seek the annulment of EU’s REACH legislation on chemical safety. Will that be repeated now in the negotiations? Things do not seem easy there for us.

I am not surprised to see that the EU’s geographical indications of foodstuffs will cause arm wrestling. The US has been doubtful of the protected designations of origin for champagne, feta cheese and parma ham, and the EU has not succeeded in convincing the Americans on the economic benefits.

In many areas the EU is expected to fight for us, but will it fight seriously, and how far? And when will the legislators from both sides of the Atlantic be presented with the challenges of harmonisation? The EU Commission quite readily confesses that the regulatory difficulties have been underestimated. The disagreements between the parties should be openly discussed on both sides of the Atlantic.

The steps Commissioner Malmström has taken towards transparency may not be favourably looked at in Washington. Therefore, Malmström rushed to point out that all the published documents are, to date, only the Commission’s own.

But this clearly shows just one half of the truth. When will we see the other side of it? I know Malmström’s record on promoting transparency, and I trust she is doing her utmost to convince the Americans that there will be no TTIP unless the parliaments and public have clarity on the details, and feel their views are taken on board in the process.