By Rajnish Singh - 12th April 2013
Even with wide support for an EU-US trade agreement some MEPs and trade experts are preaching caution. Rajnish Singh reports.
At the highly anticipated launch of negotiations for a transatlantic trade and investment partnership (TTIP) with the US in early March, Commission president José Manuel Barroso said, “Today we’ve made important progress on what I believe is a game changer, not only in transatlantic terms, but for the world in terms of trade.”
Given the current economic challenges both the EU and US face, the start of negotiations have been welcomed by most of the political groups in the European parliament. Chair of the EU’s delegation to the US Christian Ehler said, “Europe and the US are the biggest trading blocks in the world. A free trade agreement would generate significant economic gains. And now a real opportunity exists to grow that economic relationship.” ALDE deputy Annemie Neyts-Uttebroeck said the talks “will give a renewed boost to trade negotiations in general”. While ECR member and long-standing supporter of an EU-US trade agreement Syed Kamal expressed “delight at the opening of negotiations”, adding, “The TTIP should be one of the EU’s top priorities.”
MEPs also recognised that a trade agreement will enhance EU-US political relations. Spanish EPP deputy Francisco José Millán Mon told the Parliament Magazine, “A TTIP is an important opportunity to revitalise relations between the EU and US at a very opportune time.” He also said, despite the rise of the BRICS, countries, as well as the US move towards Asia, the “negotiations will demonstrate to the rest of the world the importance Europeans and Americans give to their economic and trade relations”. And for Czech S&D MEP Libor Roucek the negotiations “will engender a renewed political momentum in transatlantic relations and stimulate closer cooperation in other areas, including foreign policy”.
A trade agreement is not only politically important to Europe but as Ian Lesser, senior director of the German Marshal Fund think tank, told this magazine, “The Obama administration has also made a substantial political investment in a transatlantic trade deal.” He went on to add that a “new agreement would be a strategic development putting EU-US relations back at the centre of geo-economic importance within the global economy”. However, he warned that, “For all the enthusiasm, the outlook for an agreement remains very uncertain, with agriculture and regulatory issues as possible stumbling blocks.”
Neyts-Uyttebroeck echoed Lesser’s cautionary view to the talks. She warned, “Nobody should believe these negotiations will be a walk in the park. On the contrary they will be difficult and complicated.” She pointed out that during the Belgian presidency of the EU council, when she was Belgian trade minister, there were difficult discussions with the US, not only on agriculture products, but also steel products and patents for medicines and generic drugs. For German Greens MEP Reinhard Bütikofer “The TTIP can only succeed if the EU is ready to fight hard for our interests. The US wants us to accept genetically modified food. No thank you.” For him the focus of the negotiations must be “shaping the future, especially in establishing common standards relating to the low carbon economy”.
Recognising the implications the TTIP can have for workers, the general secretary of the European trade union confederation Bernadette Ségol highlighted the importance of transparency during the negotiations. “The public is not privy to how the commission or our governments will define the EU’s mandate. This is a huge challenge to democracy. The danger is that the trade negotiations are perceived as a corporate agenda to reduce working conditions and public services.”
Philip Whyte, of the centre for European reform think tank, warned, “This is not the first time the EU and US have tried to reduce barriers to trade, if they had been easy to dismantle, they would have would have done so a long time ago.” There has been a history of initiatives that have been launched between the EU and US, reflecting a story of “rising ambition, but frustratingly elusive results,” he added. Whyte also cautioned that “the TTIP is not an answer to Europe’s current economic malaise”, as given the time a trade agreement takes to enter into force “the TTIP will not resolve the short-term, demand-side weakness that afflicts much of Europe”.
However, US delegation chair Ehler is adamant that, despite the challenges to reaching an agreement, he and his fellow MEPs will use their powers afforded under the Lisbon treaty to carefully monitor each aspect of the negotiations. “We will constructively work towards not only the realisation of the transatlantic economic relationship’s full potential, but also the safeguarding of our shared core values and common goods,” he said.
Rajnish Singh is a journalist at The Parliament Magazine