29 July 2014

The European Commission's Great TTIP Betrayal

When the European Commission was laying the foundations for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership - TTIP, also known as TAFTA by analogy with NAFTA - it was doubtless hoping that the public would ignore it, just as it had ignored countless other boring trade agreements. But of course TTIP is not principally a trade agreement: it aims to go far beyond "merely" liberalising trade by attacking "behind the border" barriers.

These "non-tariff barriers" - NTBs - are what you and I call health and safety regulations, environmental protection, labour laws etc. They are all things that make life a more pleasant place - especially in Europe, where they are particularly strong; but they are also things that decrease the profits of companies that must obey them. TTIP is about removing as many of these as possible, so as to boost corporate profits.

Of course, that's not how the European Commission can frame things. Indeed, after the public began to wake up to what TTIP really meant, the commissioner responsible for leading the TTIP negotiations, Karel De Gucht, was forced to make high-profile statements denying that the agreement would lower standards:

Let me be clear on this very important point: we are not lowering standards in TTIP. Our standards on consumer protection, on the environment, on data protection and on food are not up for negotiation. There is no “give and take” on standards in TTIP.

Simple logic tells us that this can't possibly be true. If two completely different regulatory systems are to be brought together - the avowed aim of TTIP - there are only three possibilities. Either the side with the higher standards levels down; the side with the lower standards levels up; or there is mutual recognition of each other's standards. The US has clearly stated that it is not prepared to level up - it won't accept EU bans on chlorine-washed chickens, hormone beef or GMOs.

Mutual recognition, although apparently different, is in fact identical to levelling down: if both regulations are acceptable, manufacturers working to the higher set will be at a disadvantage commercially. They will therefore either relocate their factories to the country with the lower standards, which are cheaper to implement, or lobby for the higher standards to be levelled down, threatening either to leave the country, or shut down. Politicians always give in to this kind of blackmail, so EU standards would inevitably be lowered to those of the US as a result of mutual recognition.

But it has become increasingly clear that there is another way for the European Commission to circumvent its own promises that TTIP will not lower standards. The trick here is that the European Commission will lower standards *before* TTIP; so technically speaking it is not TTIP that brings about that dilution - it occurred "independently". Thus the Commission will be able to put its hand on its heart and swear blind that it kept its word not to sell out EU standards in TTIP, while at the same time changing the regulatory context in such a way that the US will be able to export things that are currently banned by strict EU legislations.

We're seeing more and more examples of this. Here, for example, is how new GMO regulations will allow US companies to bring in GM food:

Genetically modified crops could be grown in the UK from next year after the EU ministers relaxed laws on the controversial farming method.
Maize that has been engineered to resist weedkiller is the first to be approved but all commercial GM crops will not be given the green light for another 10 years.
Owen Patterson, the Environment Secretary, has long supported the introduction of GM crops in the UK and voted in favour of the changes on Thursday.
He said: “This is a real step forward in unblocking the dysfunctional EU process for approving GM crops, which is currently letting down our farmers and stopping scientific development.

Here's how the EU's Fuel Quality Directive, designed to discourage the use of highly-polluting carbon fuels, is being drastically weakened [.pdf]:

Since its inception in 2009, the Fuel Quality Directive (FQD), a European Union regulation aimed at reducing the climate impact of transport fuels, has been attacked by powerful lobby interests that do not want the EU to take action to curtail the use of particularly greenhouse gas intensive fossil fuels.
these attempts to weaken this landmark climate policy seem to have been successful. If recent media reports are correct, the European Commission has decided to significantly weaken the FQD and align its regulatory standards with the wishes of the oil industry, the US trade negotiators [for TTIP] and the Canadian government. Compared to a previous proposal from 2011, it would be considerably less effective in cleaning up Europe’s transport fuels and preventing the most climate polluting fuels, including tar sands, from entering Europe.

Most recently, we have learned that the European Commission is preparing to allow endocrine disruptors in pesticides - another key demand from the US side in TTIP. Unfortunately, the source for this information, Inside US Trade, is behind a paywall, so I can't give a link, but will just quote a couple of key passages:

One of the options proposed by the commission in a June 17 "roadmap" is to shift from the current EU approach of banning the use of all endocrine disruptors in pesticides toward a model that could allow them to be used as long as certain steps are taken to mitigate the risk. 

This risk assessment-based model is favored by the U.S. and EU pesticide industries and is the approach employed under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's "Endocrine Disruptor Screening Program." Such a model seeks to evaluate both whether a hazard exists and if it can be mitigated by limiting exposure, in order to allow the marketing of an otherwise dangerous product.

As you can see, this amounts to abandoning the EU's Precautionary Principle, and adopting the completely different risk-based approach of the US. Aside from the fact that this shows that the European Commission's promises that standards would not fall, that the EU would not be forced to adopt US approaches, and that public health in Europe would always be safeguarded, were worthless, this also disregards the EU's Treaty of Lisbon, which explicitly states:

Union policy on the environment shall aim at a high level of protection taking into account the diversity of situations in the various regions of the Union. It shall be based on the precautionary principle and on the principles that preventive action should be taken, that environmental damage should as a priority be rectified at source and that the polluter should pay.

What's particularly interesting about the latest move by the European Commission is that the industry sources in the article quoted above point out that it represents a move to a "science-based" approach, something they have been demanding (note, too, that Owen Paterson also spoke of "scientific development" in the passage quoted above.) 

This is part of consistent campaign to paint the Precautionary Principle as "unscientific". In fact, this reframing is precisely what I predicted would happen a year ago. The key point is that "science" in the abstract does not exist: there is a continuum of good science and bad science - where the latter often includes experiments carried out by corporate scientists who miraculously produce results that match their paymaster's desires.

It's not just me saying this. Yesterday the following article appeared in the Guardian on the subject of pesticide research - the area that the European Commission wants to overhaul radically, moving towards a "science-based" approach:

Criticial future research on the plight of bees risks being tainted by corporate funding, according to a report from MPs published on Monday. Pollinators play a vital role in fertilising three-quarters of all food crops but have declined due to loss of habitat, disease and pesticide use. New scientific research forms a key part of the government’s plan to boost pollinators but will be funded by pesticide manufacturers.

That is, as I pointed out, when companies pay for research, they tend to get the answers they want.

When it comes to research on pesticides, the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is content to let the manufacturers fund the work,” said EAC chair Joan Walley. “This testifies to a loss of environmental protection capacity in the department responsible for it. If the research is to command public confidence, independent controls need to be maintained at every step. Unlike other research funded by pesticide companies, these studies also need to be peer-reviewed and published in full”.

This again is something that I advocated last year. If companies want us to take their results seriously - and in principle I don't have problem with that, provide the science is sound and independent - then they must publish their findings in peer-reviewed journals and, crucially, publish *all* of their results as open data, for anyone to check and explore further. If they won't do that, we will know that they have something to hide.

In the meanwhile, expect the European Commission to start invoking "science-based" approaches to policy more and more, and that these strangely always mean that the European Union should lower its standards to those of the US, which already uses this "tainted" approach.

But however the Commission wants to package this massive shift, and whatever lipstick it puts on this particular pig (sorry, pigs, nothing personal), this is a fundamental betrayal at the very deepest level. It is truly disgraceful - not to mention ungrateful - that at every turn the European Commission seems to prefer to serve US corporations rather than the European public that pays the Commissioners' not-inconsiderable salaries. It's another reason why the whole of TTIP - not just the already terminal ISDS - must be rejected.

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