02 January 2016


In my last update, I mentioned plans to organise a European Citizens' Initiative, a formal petition against both TTIP and CETA.  I think everyone assumed that the European Commission would just ignore this, but in fact it has done something rather more spectactular - and stupid: it has refused to allow the ECI to go ahead at all.

In its rejection of the ECI, the European Commission claims that the negotiating mandates on TTIP and CETA are not legal acts but internal preparatory acts between EU institutions and therefore not contestable via an ECI.

“The Commission’s view that only acts with an effect on third parties are permissible for an ECI is obviously a legal error. The negotiating mandate of the Commission is a formal decision of the Council and therefore a legal act. If the Commission’s legal opinion had any substance, then in plain English this would mean that Europe’s population is excluded from participation in the development of any kind of international agreements – information that is as frightening as it is scandalous,” according to Efler.

What’s more, the Commission claims that it cannot make negative ratification proposals and therefore cannot comply with the ECI demand not to conclude the CETA and TTIP negotiations. “Contrariwise, this means that citizens can only applaud international negotiations carried out by the Commission, but not criticize them,” said Efler.

The group behind the petition have realised that they don't actually need the European Commission's permission anyway, and so are simply going ahead without it:

We reject the Commission’s attempt to silence us and will carry out our European Citizens’ Initiative anyway, without approval from Brussels. We are currently preparing an online signature gathering tool as well as paper signature forms and will start collection in early October. At the same time, we will challenge the Commission in court by appealing to the European Court of Justice.

In the past couple of weeks our campaign has gathered support from over 240 civil society organisations in 21 EU member states. It is somewhat ironic that the European Commission, which often complains about the “lack of a European public”, is trying to stop this truly European movement in its tracks. We will continue to speak out against the Commission’s total lack of transparency in the negotiations and favouring of corporate interests over the common good. We will stay very public and very European in our opposition to TTIP and CETA!

This refusal even to allow a largely symbolic petition to proceed is indicative of the contempt with which the European Commission regards any expression of the public's view on these matters, which it seems to think are the exclusive domain of bureaucrats and politicians (and lobbyists).  That was underlined even more strongly last week, when the official text of the trade agreement with Canada, CETA, was finally released.  However, at precisely that moment, the European Commission was also "celebrating" the conclusion of the talks, with the implication that no further changes can be made.  So after telling everyone that the public would have its chance to comment on the CETA text later, it turns out that in fact it can only see the document not change it.  The European Commission has an interesting concept of what democracy means.

Interestingly, the meeting between the European Commission and the Canadian government was called a "celebration" rather than a signing because Germany has indicated that it is not happy with the inclusion of the problematic investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) chapter in CETA.  Since it is likely that CETA is a "mixed agreement" - that is, one that requirements approval from all 28 member states, as well as from the European Parliament - if Germany were to say "no", CETA would be dead.

It turns out that ISDS is only one of the really bad ideas contained in CETA.  That's what emerges from an excellent analysis of CETA from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, called "Making Sense of the CETA".  It's very clearly written, and I recommend it to anyone who wants to understand what the implications of CETA will be for business or, indeed, for all of us. 

Another key factor influencing both CETA and TTIP is the appointment of a new European Commissioner responsible for trade, and thus trade agreements.  The Commissioner-Designate is Cecilia Malmstrom, and she was involved in yet another storm around ISDS at the weekend.

Jon Worth has all the details in a blog post, but essentially a document from Malmstrom indicated that she was willing to drop ISDS from TTIP.  The S&D group in the European Parliament issued a statement welcoming the move, but then Malmstrom tweeted that she hadn't written the words.  This made her appearance yesterday before the European Parliament as part of the process of confirming her as trade commissioner even more important, since it would clarify what exactly she thought on this matter.

Her statements during that session were unequivocal: she will not take ISDS out of CETA, which she regards as finished.  She claimed she had an open mind on ISDS in TTIP, saying that it might be taken out, but she was unconvincing here.  It seems clear that she wants ISDS in TTIP.  Her justification was very weak.  She kept on saying that ISDS existed in other treaties (true), was problematic there (true), and therefore required a new, improved version to be used in TTIP (false).  She seemed to be under the impression that "improving" ISDS in TTIP would somehow rectify all the deeply-flawed versions elsewhere, when they are completely unrelated.

It's true that there are some EU countries that have bilateral trade agreements with the US that includes ISDS.  These are ex-Soviet countries that clearly signed up to bad deals because they were desperate to escape the clutches of Russia.  But that's not a reason to include ISDS in TTIP, and inflict the same problems on everyone else.  The East European treaties can all be cancelled in due course, and that is what those countries should do.  Adding ISDS to TTIP simply gives new life to the idea. 

Equally, the view that ISDS can be "improved" sufficiently to make it acceptable is wrong: it is just not needed between the EU and US, both of which have well-functioning legal systems.  Creating new rights for corporates that allow them to challenge national regulations outside the legal system is just anti-democratic and bad policy. 

Finally, it was clear that Malmstrom laboured under the delusion that we "need" this ISDS in TTIP so that we can demand that China accepts it in a trade agreement that is currently under discussion.  What this overlooks is the painful fact that soon China will be investing more in Europe than Europe invests in China, such is the strength of the China's economy, and the size of its reserves.  This means that ISDS will be chiefly a weapon that can be used by Chinese companies *against* the EU, not for EU companies to use in China.  Not only will ISDS by harmful in TTIP, it will be actively dangerous in any agreement with China.

Although it was clear from the meeting yesterday that Malmstrom is not another Karel De Gucht, who was far more abrasive and arrogant than she is, equally she will not be deviating much from his policy, even if she dresses it up differently.  She made vague but essentially empty promises about increasing transparency, but ignored the real issue: that we do not have access to negotiating documents. 

Some claim that such documents must be secret, otherwise the EU negotiators will lose the advantage; this is demonstrably not true, since for WIPO talks, all the documents are open by default without problem.  But even were it true, the solution is simple: make available all those documents once they are *tabled*.  At that point, there is no negotiating advantage in keeping them secret, since the US side has already seen them.  That's also true for the lobbyists that have routine access to these documents.  The only group that suffers is - of course - the public, that never has any means of seeing what is supposedly being done in its name.  Instead, as the CETA fiasco shows, at the end of the process we are presented with a fait accompli, and told simply to like it or lump it.

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