EU aims for free trade pact before Obama goes
By Peter Teffer
Greenpeace understands the media.
On Monday morning (22 February) activists blocked the entrance of the building where European and US negotiators were due to meet for talks on a free trade agreement. A deal to which Greenpeace is heavily opposed.
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The NGO sent out photos via social media and a press release to match at 8:34am - more than two hours before the official “photo opportunity” organised by the European Commission.
This means that any media that needs images to accompany its coverage of the first day of the 12th round of talks on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) will have material that is, in any case, visually more interesting than the handshake between the two lead negotiators.
However, by jubilantly saying “Greenpeace activists block secret TTIP talks”, the anti-TTIP lobbyists may have cheered too soon.
The US and EU are still aiming to finishing the talks this year, EU commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem told Austrian newspaper Der Standard in an interview published Monday.
A White House spokesperson recently said that a TTIP deal may not be finished before president Barack Obama leaves office in January 2017.
But European Commission sources said last week that an Obama-term deal is still possible, and insisted that the White House had clarified that it still shared this aim.
“It is possible to conclude the negotiations at the political level with the current administration,” an EU source said.
“But we do not hide the difficulties, in light of the many issues that still need to be solved.
“We would put all our energy in trying to get this negotiations forward but never to the sacrifice of substance, and never to the sacrifice of balance, in terms of interest of both sides.”
Many Europeans have expressed worry that the deal could lower environmental standards and labour rights. According to Malmstroem, there would be “many months” to study the full text of the agreement between when the deal is signed, and when it is ratified and goes into effect.
Currently, it is still open what sectors will be covered in the agreement, and how. At the moment nine sectors are on the table, including for example the car sector, medical devices, and chemicals.
“What we aim to achieve during this week would be to have as clear as possible common understanding by both sides, including the regulators by both sides, about what it is the concrete objective that can be achieved in TTIP in each of these sectors,” said the commission source.
“So that once there is a clear common understanding about what is the concrete objective, then we should be able to, in the next negotiating round, to begin to work already on texts,” the source added.
For example, the two sides are looking at whether they can reduce the number of inspections in the pharmaceutical industry. Under current terms, a company selling the same pharmaceuticals on both sides of the Atlantic would be visited by both regulators.
The commission aims to have another two rounds of talks after this week's round before the end of July.
“Our objective … is to try to make sure that before the summer break on all areas, or nearly all areas, we have texts, a consolidated text, with only a limited number of brackets,” the EU source said. Brackets are used in draft texts during negotiations to indicate that an agreement is not yet reached in that specific area.
As talks intensify, public scrutiny will also focus on what presidential candidates say about their intentions on the agreement. But the commission is not yet comparing candidates to see which ones could potentially derail the pact.
It noted that TTIP had a potentially higher degree of bipartisan support than some other free trade deals.
“Many congressional Democrats will tell you they have never voted for a free trade agreement, but could consider voting for TTIP because Europe has higher standards for labour protection, higher standards for environmental protection,” the commission source said.