EU and US - together for growth

The TTIP promises more uniform regulations and positives for the economy, but the negotiations are not risk-free.

The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) currently being negotiated between the United States and the European Union has been gaining prominence in the European debate in recent months. This is good news since the discussion is not just limited to economics. Quite the contrary, it very much involves the values and standards that should apply to social, environmental, consumer protection and security issues. These standards are being severely tested and strained in our ever-changing world where decisions are now so interrelated that they can't help affecting the lives of citizens everywhere.

It is for this very reason that TTIP provides a great opportunity to reinforce the European social model and values as they have been shaping up within the EU.

This agreement can be instrumental in establishing common transatlantic regulations and might encourage a virtuous cycle that could end up involving other countries. And civil society must play its part in influencing the path of these negotiations.

Talk of deregulation tends to be misleading since the issue at stake here is actually more thorough regulation. The considerable weight of regulations that the EU brings to the table is what has enabled Europe, in broad terms, to provide its citizens with the highest level and widest scope of protection. This regulatory identity is at the heart of these negotiations. And what has been criticized in the past as Europe’s ‘hyper-regulation’ can now be regarded as the benchmark to which all others must aspire.

The treaty has enormous implications, even in symbolic terms. The mere presence of the US as Europe's counterpart stirs up deep-rooted feelings linked with the rejection of American cultural imperialism and a view of the US that encompasses many negative values and regulatory shortcomings. From the onset, this powerful symbolism has made it difficult to focus on the true objectives of the discussions and establishing their scope.

The relatively secretive attitude initially adopted by the European Commission was certainly not helpful. It was only in October 2014 that the Commission agreed to make the negotiating mandate containing the directives for the talks available to the public while committing to a new transparency initiative stipulated by the European Parliament.

This was an important step in a still ongoing process – sustained by the European Parliament's repeated appeals for transparency – that reassured and will continue to reassure citizens on several points. For example, the mandate does not include audiovisual and cultural production of goods and services, which will thus be exempted from the negotiations, and the EU demands a clear public commitment to safeguarding the existing rules with regard to the provision of basic public services.

So far, all the documents made available to the public have been published on the EU’s dedicated site (http://trade.ec.europa.eu/doclib/press/index.cfm?id=1230). As is often the case, only by relinquishing ideological positions and examining each negotiable issue at face value can one form a realistic assessment of the scope of this agreement and its more or less desirable consequences.

Since we are approaching a new, decisive phase of the negotiations, where positions have been established but not yet clearly defined and disagreements on several questions still remain, it appears fitting that for the time being the EU Parliament, which functions as co-legislator in matters of commercial policy, adopt a pragmatic approach.

Each negotiation cycle must be properly completed before making a final evaluation, which needs to be formulated based on the final content of the agreement once the process has reached its natural conclusion. In this sense, the new Commission's open and collaborative attitude greatly facilitates matters. The new European commissioner for trade, Cecilia Malmström, has shown a high regard for the role of the European Parliament in this as well as in other trade agreements currently under negotiation.

Examining the stances adopted by each party, case by case, and finding one's own standpoint might be an exacting task, but the stakes are too high to indulge in an attitude any less pragmatic than this. In a time like the present, with the European Union still cringing from the blows of an economic crisis that has brought it to its knees, one of the few hopes of economic growth and recovery lie in Europe's trade relations with third countries. That is to say in exports towards emerging nations that have recently made the transition out of poverty and represent unexplored markets that hanker after European goods and lifestyles.

The European Parliament has high ambitions for the TTIP and is not willing to sign a blank check. The institution will have to use all its powers to influence the negotiations and thereby fulfil the role of representing citizens' interests and concerns. If some of the conditions that are of crucial importance to the European Parliament are not satisfied – for example, ensuring that the labour and environmental protection standards so far achieved in Europe remain unaltered – it will not ratify the agreement.

An ever wider and more informed debate would of course be desirable but is often hard to promote. The European Commission's publication of the results of an online public consultation on the controversial investor-to-state dispute settlement (ISDS) clause, one of the most sensitive points of the negotiations, is a good example of this difficulty. Out of a total of 150,000 responses, approximately 52,000 comments came from Great Britain, nearly 34,000 from Austria and 32,500 from Germany. Only 222 replies came from Italy.

There is still a long way to go before we develop a real awareness of the kind of decisions being reached.

@alessiamosca

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