TTIP will strip European farmers of their livelihood, jobs - MEP

A grandiose trade pact is in the making between the US and the EU. The TTIP deal, set to affect lives on both sides of the Atlantic, is a well-kept secret, with negotiations carried out behind closed doors under tough non-disclosure rules. Officials on American side praise the agreement, promising growth and prosperity if it goes through, but who exactly is going to prosper in the end? What's so special about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership that it has to be kept away from general public? And what power will it grant to corporations from the other side of the ocean? We ask Member of the European Parliament Bart Staes on SophieCo.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Member of the European Parliament from the Green Party, part of the European Free Alliance transnational group, Bart Staes, welcome to the show it’s great to have you with us. Barack Obama has touted the TTIP agreement as beneficial to all involved and has said that the U.S. is “prepared to make every effort to reach an ambitious, comprehensive and high-standard agreement this year”. Let’s hear what he has to say:

Barack Obama: “T-TIP will eliminate tariffs, simplify procedures, bridge differences in regulations and cut red tape -- all of which will make it easier to invest and trade”.

SS: Tell me something, why is Europe resisting?

Bart Staes: These negotiations between the EU and USA are more than negotiations that are only about free trade. They are dealing with our standards, our norms, the way we legislate, the way we organise our markets, our agriculture, our food system, and there’s quite a lot of resistance with the people here in the EU, and the fear that the negotiators will trade off our standards on many issues. It’s about how we will organise our society and the European society. The EU is definitely not the same kind of society as the U.S.

SS: French Prime Minister Manuel Valls announced that he’s called a “clear halt” to the TTIP negotiations, and so have Belgians and the Austrian Minister as well, but Angela Merkel has said she wants to continue. What does she know that the rest of Europe doesn’t?

BS: I think the negotiations will go on. They started in 2013, it were difficult talks, we know exactly what the Europeans are proposing, we have, also, here in the EU Parliament access to all documents that are being distributed and given to the Americans as proposals for negotiations. The only difficulty is that we have now the elections in the U.S. with a new president, with new members of Congress, and then next year there are elections in Netherlands and in France and in Germany, and I  think negotiating in a year where there are elections is very difficult. That is why some German ministers, some French ministers say “We should stop the negotiations right now” and only start again after the results of the elections in 2017 in the Netherlands and Germany and in France. But I think the negotiations will go on, will go further and if there’s a successful result this will end up in a proposal of conclusions somewhere in the beginning of 2018.

SS:So here what Germany’s economic Minister Sigmar Gabriel previously said:

Sigmar Gabriel: “Talks with the U.S. have de facto failed”. 

SS: But then a fortnight later he u-turned and told the Bundestag he’d welcome the negotiations to continue. What could have changed his mind so quickly?

BS: I think that Mr Gabriel plays here a tactical game. There’s a lot of opposition within Germany against TTIP, with big manifestations in Berlin with more than 200,000 or 300,000 people, so there’s a lot of opposition from the German public against TTIP, against the negotiations between Europe and the U.S. But what is on the table right now is an agreement that exists already and that has been finalised in the negotiations between the EU and Canada. I think the tactical game of Mr Gabriel was calming down the people in Germany by saying “Okay, the TTIP negotiations have failed, let’s focus on CETA, on the negotiations with Canada and then we will see further”. I think that’s his tactical game because there are important elections next year in Germany, in September - for a new Bundes Chancellor, for a new Parliament, for a new government and as a left-wing social democrat, he wants to become more sympathetic to people that are opposing TTIP, and that was the only game he played, but I do not trust him because I think that he wants to finalise those negotiations and I’m not sure always  that the final result will be good for the people and for Europe.

SS: Elected members of the EU Parliament are among the few allowed to read the text - so, I suppose, you’ve done so, right? However, I understand, that this can only be done in a security-proof chamber with someone present, watching over you and you can’t speak about it to anybody - I mean, Bundestag member Katrina Dröge says “You’re obliged to sign a lengthy non-disclosure agreement” - why the secrecy?

BS: That is one of the big mysteries about TTIP. Indeed, we have a secured room in the European Parliament in Brussels where we can consult documents. I must say that the content of those documents are not top secret from what I’ve read about it and what I see as well is that many of those documents are first put in that secured room under strict conditions and then after some months - 3, 4 or 5 months - they become public because they are put on the website of the European Commission. Some people say we need that secrecy because if you negotiate with the U.S. you can’t play the game with open cards, you cannot show what you want to do. But this is nonsense, because the documents that are in the reading room in the Parliament are the documents that are being given to the Americans and are the proposals of the European Union towards the U.S. in certain domains, be it privacy, be it the use of pesticides, be it the domain of health policy - and this is simply what the Americans have in their possession. So it is nonsense to say that we need secrecy on this, because what the Americans have I think the general public in the EU should have as well, and certainly, elected members of Parliament.

SS: So I just wonder what happens to you if you read this text and then you discuss it with someone else - like, what, you get arrested, you get fined? What happens?

BS: In the Code of Conduct in the European Parliament, if you do things that you’re not allowed to do, you risk to be punished - for instance, by part of your salary taken away or being expelled from plenary for a certain amount of days, but what we do, we consult the documents and the members who consult the documents speak about them to each other so that we can really think about strategy and tactics we have to use for what we want to do on TTIP. As I said, most of the documents are there for 3-4 months in the secret room and then become public anyway, so the only advantage of going into secret room is that you know a little bit earlier than others what the European Commission proposed to the U.S.

SS: Why is it that there’s someone basically telling the Representatives of the European citizens what to do? Who exactly is giving these orders to the members of the Parliament?

BS: It is the European Commission saying that they need secrecy and that they cannot negotiate in full transparency and I think that this is, simply, a mistake, it gives the people who oppose those negotiations, it gives them fuel, it gives them power to say “These are negotiations that are dangerous for the European society”, that there are things that are being discussed that cannot see the daylight. So it is a stupid strategy from the European Commission, that’s the only thing I can say about it, and I would like to have it much more open, much more transparent, because the negotiations deal with issues that concern the way how legislate, how we build our society, how we protect our food safety, how we protect our privacy and that are issues that are too important to be dealt with in secrecy.

SS: So the only thing that public knows is through emerged leaks about the TTIP - is keeping a deal in total secret is the only way it can actually come to pass?

BS: You cannot say that the general public only knows things about TTIP through leaks. The new Trade Commissioner, Mrs Malmström has a much more open strategy and she puts documents on the website of her ministry, of her directorate-general, DG Trade, and a lot of those documents are in public domain and people can read it. What happens as well is that Mrs Malmström as Trade Commissioner, briefs much more regularly journalists and the general public on what is being discussed in the monthly negotiations that are taking place, once in the States and the other time in the EU. The leaks that did exist came, for instance, from a well-known environmental NGO Greenpeace and most of those documents were not secret-secret, we were aware of them, and some of them even were in the public domain. So, you cannot say that the only thing people can know about TTIP is coming from leaks. What is, maybe, much more important, is that even though there’s certain transparency in the EU, there’s no transparency at all in the U.S. We do not know what kind of texts, what kind of proposals the negotiators from the U.S. present to the EU, to the European Commission, and that is a big problem. We would like to know what the Americans propose to us and not only what the Europeans are proposing to the Americans.

SS: Now, the Greenpeace leak also revealed that the deal will open up EU markets for U.S.-produced foods and products. Why does  that mean that EU will have to abandon its regulatory standards? Moreover, why is American-produced food considered to be so harmful to Europeans?

BS: On foods, the EU has a totally different approach than the U.S. - we have an approach starting from a precautionary principle, whereby we control the whole food chain from the farm till the fork, till the plate of the consumer, and this is, of course, very important. It is reassuring as well that through the whole food chain, the food is safe, it’s well controlled, and that is not the case in the U.S. - there, they only control at the end of the chain. Of course, the approach of the Europeans is much more expensive than a final control in the United States of America, so if you’re letting in food that is produced in the most cheaper way, and less controlled way than it is in  the EU, you face a problem for European farmers who will have to compete against farmers in the States that are producing in a different way.

SS: Also, the European Commission argues that the basic American products like maize and animal feed will become cheaper for European farmers and the American market will open up for EU agriculture products, but  a recent study by the German Federal Association of Green Business concluded that no one can produce products like cereal as cheaply as the U.S. and that conventional GMO-free farmers may be squeezed out of the market. So how exactly does European agriculture benefit here?

BS: I do not think that European agriculture will benefit from a TTIP deal, because they will a level playing field, a field that is according to standards of the U.S., and not according to our European standards - European standards where we had big debates in Parliament, where we have made good laws, where it was difficult to make agreements between the many political families in the Parliaments, an agreement with farmers, an agreement with consumers and the fact that the TTIP agreement will open up all those markets and let free competition, free trade between the EU and the U.S. will not necessarily be a good thing nor for consumers in Europe, nor for farmers in Europe. Even more farmers will risk to lose their farm and their jobs and their land.

SS: From what I gather, it seems like this deal will directly affect every farmer in Europe or the people who work in bakeries, butchers, etc - this will have a significant impact on common people. Has there been consultations or any attempt to explain the benefits to those who will be affected, because I feel like they have no idea.

BS: The big problem in the negotiations is that the negotiators are negotiating about the concept of what is called “Regulatory Cooperation”, whereby if you make laws in the EU, you first will have to sit together with technicians from the U.S. and whereby the proposals will be discussed under technicians and under the criteria of free trade, of growth, of competitiveness and not under the criteria of health, of animal welfare, of food safety - and that is a bad thing, because if you produce foods, animal welfare, food safety, health in general is important and you cannot have a way of proposing laws whereby only free trade growth and competition are the ultimate criteria.

SS: Leaked TTIP documents say that American firms could influence the content of EU laws through the trade pact - how is that exactly possible?

BS: That will take place in that Regulatory Cooperation agreement, whereby technicians will sit together, will discuss and propose laws, whereby they will also consult lobbies and thereby the big corporations and the big industrial lobbies will have a direct say on what is being discussed in that regulatory cooperation body of the TTIP agreement and I think that is fully anti-democratic, it is not acceptable, laws have to be made by elected members of Parliament and not by technicians and certainly not by the big industrial lobbies.

SS: Now there’s something known as the ISDS, the Investor-State Dispute Settlement clause that is central to the TTIP deal, and it is of high priority for Washington. Now, this corporate-court mechanism will allow multinational companies to sue governments over lost profits. So, let’s say, if Belgium decides to put cigarettes in plain packaging, foreign company can sue it - if it believes it’s not getting enough profit - is that how it works?

BS: That is how it works. It is a mechanism that exists already in many trade agreements. I think first trade agreement where that kind of mechanism was used, was an agreement somewhere in the end of 50s of last century, but the mechanism has been introduced in trade negotiations between partners, where one partner couldn’t trust the legal system of the other partner. Now we have a legal system in European Union, we have a legal system in the U.S., and you definitely cannot say that those two legal systems cannot be trusted by others. I think these are solid legal systems and I think that if external foreign investors want to protect their rights they have to through the normal legal system, such as normal investors and normal people do when they have a dispute with somebody in the States or in the EU. So it is an absolute nonsense to have such an extra mechanism as it is called ISDS, Investor-State Dispute Settlement in such an agreement, the more that the U.S. and the EU are democracies with strong legal systems.

SS: Now the American big business is touted as the beneficiary of the free trade deal. However, when it comes to European access to the U.S. markets like civil aviation, for instance, American companies don’t want European competition. So are corporations after selective free trade, is this a sometimes-free trade deal?

BS: They are certainly selective and what plays in America is done by American acts, whereby people are obliged to buy American. Certainly when it deals with strategic sectors - and it must be clear that in the negotiations this is one of the big difficulties - if ministers from France and Germany are saying that TTIP “is dead”, they think about that part of the deal and about that part of the negotiations. The Americans are, indeed, very selective and big American corporations want free access into the EU, while the move of European corporations into the U.S. is much more difficult and thereby there’s certainly not an agreement to let them enter the markets in the States.

SS: Angela Merkel insists on keeping TTIP alive because she says that anything that can tackle unemployment should be persisted with. Now with the amount of money being touted in trade profits, surely will create jobs, no?

BS: Well that is one of the discussions as well - when the negotiations started in 2013, the Commission came up with some economic studies and some economic models, they said that TTIP would create growth, would create jobs. In the meantime many other studies, many other professor and academics studied the cases and studied the negotiations and said that, on the contrary, maybe there will be a small amount of growth - we’re talking about less than half of percent in ten years. When see earlier trade negotiations, for instance, NAFTA agreement, the North American Free Trade Agreement between Mexico, U.S. and Canada - when that was negotiated the argument was as well that “this will create jobs, this will create growth” - and what did we see? Quite a lot of people lost jobs, there was, in the final days of NAFTA, there was a big loss of jobs. So this is part of the debate on TTIP - will TTIP really create growth, will it really create jobs, and even if it creates growth, where will the growth arrive? Will it arrive for honorary people, the consumers, with honorary citizens or will it end up in big profits for the big corporations?

SS: Now, while the news of the TTIP negotiations stalling may have been celebrated by some, there’s another deal that’s already being signed, the one that you’ve brought up earlier - CETA, a free trade deal between the EU and Canada and it’s based on all the same principles as TTIP, allowing corporations to sue governments for unfairness or loss of profits. So under the deal, any corporation operating in Canada can do it - which means most of American corporations can do it as well, because they already operate in Canada. Is CETA being snuck in the back door, while everyone’s resisting the big treaty from entering the front door?

BS: Indeed, part of the debate is, if you see the text of CETA and you see what we know from TTIP, it is very similar, and indeed, one of the debates is that if you, for instance, have this ISDS system, which is now called differently in the CETA deal, but which is, in fact, exactly the same - if we agree on that between Canada and the EU, then, of course, corporations in America with branches in Canada can use the CETA deal to interfere in European politics and to bring member states of the EU before private ISDS courts and threaten legislation in the EU. So the debate of the next 5-6 months in European parliament is on CETA, those debates are very important because they are, let’s say, a prelude on what can happen with TTIP.

SS: Thank you very much for this interview, we were talking to Bart Staes, Green Party Member of the European Parliament, discussing the proposed Trans-Atlantic Free Trade deal between EU and the U.S. and its possible impact on the public on both sides of the Atlantic. That’s it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I’ll see you next time.