In between the excitement for the outcome of Turkey’s election and the disappointment about the series of scandals that struck the biggest sports organization worldwide, people might have overlooked that, on the 10th of June, the Members of the European Parliament were supposed to being asked in the monthly plenary session in Strasbourg to vote for the first time on a report about the TTIP trade agreement.
The Strasbourg assembly should have not been engaged in a definitive vote about the trade agreements in toto,but on a preliminary draft that passed already last Thursday in the EP’s Committee on International Trade. This is a document which has caused more than a few ruptures within the coalition of parties that elected last year Jean Claude Junker’s Commission, in particular within Social Democrats, United Left, Greens and some of the European People’s Party. In particular it was not possible to reach a conciliation between the progressive groups around the reformed ISDS clause (Investor-State Dispute Settlement). As a matter of fact the S&D assumed a new and quite ambiguous position, backing the EPP in vote at the Committee, compromising on the inclusion in the draft of a revisited version of the ISDS. The clause, already adopted in many trade agreements, will imply a misbalance of judgment between foreign and home investors, as international investors in case of legal dispute will be allowed to handle the offence at the level of an international arbitrage court, not being subject to strictly national and EU legislation. Declarations of individual social democrats MEPs seem to support the thesis that at the end the vote over the document will be negative, notwithstanding the compromise in the Trade Committee, nevertheless the outcome of today’s vote was far from being clear. From their side the Green/European Free Alliance strongly advocated against “any mechanism to provide private, extra-juridical means for corporations to challenge democratically-decided laws”.
Not surprisingly yesterday evening the President of the European Parliament Martin Schultz announced that due to the higher number of amendments to the document – round about 200 – the vote had to be delayed and the report re-examined by the Committee. This sudden postponement raised many questions and disappointment not only between the public opinion but within the Groups themselves. A strategic but not very elegant move for the S&D and the EPP to gain time in order to reconcile the internal diverging positions that would have probably erupted in today vote.
But what is exactly the Translatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership that is threatening the fragile balance inside the European Parliament and why do we, Graduates of Democracy, feel the need to raise awareness about this agreement?
The history of one of the most relevant trade agreement outside the World Trade Organization (and probably the biggest), dates back to February 2013 despite the fact that public opinion only arose around the subject in the last year. In 2013, a bilateral-commissioned group of experts published a document underlying the necessity and the benefits of a free-trade area between the two unions, calling for the opening of negotiation on the subject. An effective call that was warmly welcome both by the President Obama and by the EU Commission Present Barroso, and which lead to creation of a negotiating mandate from the European Parliament to the Commission in June 2013. Once the mandate was given, the negotiations have been held “behind closed doors”, reporting on a periodic basis the developments to the assembly, a method which seems to clash with the principle of transparency and democracy that the European Union has been trying to promote so far. When the final agreement will be concluded, the Parliament will have a binding vote on TTIP, implying that there will be no space for amendments or any sort of modification, either the deal will be adopted as a whole or it will be totally rejected. Take it or leave it in simple words.
The TTIP deal’s main objective does not lay uniquely in lowering the trade barriers between the European Union and the United States, which are already modest and clearly granted within the context of the WTO and its regulatory bodies, but it targets the so-called “harmonization of standards” from the two sides of the Atlantic. Indeed one of the toughest rounds will be played in the fields of consumer’s safety and environmental standards, in which the two unions have quite different legislation and approaches.
In spite of the assurances given by the European Commissioner for Trade Cecilia Malmström, on the effort that the European negotiating team is delivering for finding “a common approach to health, environment, labour, consumer safety and financial risk”, the criticisms are manifolds and increasing also between NGOs and consumer and workers associations. The BEUC (The European Consumer Association), just to cite an example, thorugh the declaration of its director general Monique Goyens, is one of the lobbying actors involved in keeping a critical eye on the negotiations, and the risks that consumers might undergo in case of lower standards. Together with associations and also institutional bodies of the EU like the European Economic and Social Committee expressed their uncertainties, in particular concerning the application of the ISDS clause.
So the current and delicate role of the European Parliament is to make clear and stress what is its position and the positions of the different voices within the Groups are, in order to shape the negotiations towards this direction. That is the reason why the outcome of the meeting in Strasbourg, even if on a preliminary basis, will have such a huge impact on the future of the deal. The vote will represent one of the few rare possibilities to make the Commission and the panel responsible in charge of the negotiation know what the boundaries are that the Assembly are not willing to compromise on in order to approve the deal. The hope is that in the case that the highly debated ISDS was already a secured anchor in the negotiations, the Parliament will be able to leave the role of simple spectator and impose, or at least push for, a mechanism that prevent the abuse of this clause.
Elena Zurli – Current student in Agricultural and Food Economics at the University of Bonn and proud graduate of the School of Democracy 2015.
 For the latest press release of the Green Group about the TTIP vote : http://www.greens-efa.eu/eu-us-ttip-negotiations-14071.html
 Declaration made by Mrs Malmostrom in the occasion of the hearing held in September 2014 at the European Parliament. For the complete hearing and Q&A, please look at http://epthinktank.eu/2014/10/01/public-debate-following-the-hearing-of-eu-commissioner-designate-for-trade-cecilia-malmstrom-before-the-european-parliament/