Monday

24th Sep 2018

Uncertainty stalks EU trade deals with US and Canada

  • Chief trade negotiators Dan Mullaney (l) and Ignacio Garcia Bercero (r). (Photo: European Commission)

The 14th round of negotiations over the EU-US free trade deal TTIP is over, but not really.

Last week’s round was officially scheduled to last five days (11-15 July). But talks got going on Saturday (9 July), dragged on over another weekend and will take place this week as well.

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The goal is to have a consolidated text - the negotiating positions of both parts, listed side by side - by the end of the summer.

In other words - after three years, 14 rounds and ”hundreds of meetings, hours spent on the phone and many TTIP proposals exchanged, discussed and exchanged again”, as EU chief negotiator Ignacio Garcia Bercero put it during a press conference on Friday (15 July) - there is still nothing that both parts agree on, and not even one text which lists the EU-US positions side by side.

”Important differences remain and much more work, basically in every area of the talks, is needed before we can say we have a deal,” Garcia Bercero admitted.

Consensus is closest in the field of tariffs, with the exception of three percent of highly sensitive products, which weren’t discussed this time around.

But tariffs are already low between the two blocs, and the whole point of TTIP was to scrap non-tariff barriers - such as mismatched rules and standards - holding back trade in the 21st century.

Chief negotiators summed up the state of play on Friday, saying that progress remained ”painfully slow” on services, ”a serious cause for concern” on public procurement and ”would continue next week” on financial services and investment protection rules.

”As in any negotiation, the most difficult issues are usually the last ones to get resolved,” US chief negotiator Dan Mullaney said.

The diplomats claimed this was normal and said the only way to get a broad agreement was to cover as many aspects as possible - so that one party’s losses in any area would be compensated with victory elsewhere.

For that reason, a TTIP-lite was not an option, they agreed.

The goal remains to close the deal by the end of the year, before US president Barack Obama leaves the White House.

It is uncertain if any of the presidential hopefuls will wish to continue negotiations, and it will take months to appoint a new US trade representative and team.

The chief negotiators said they would be working long hours.

EU without trade

But even if they bridge their differences and bring talks to a close, it doesn't mean the deal is cliched - as shown by Ceta, the EU free trade agreement with Canada.

The Slovak presidency of the Council last week announced a gloomy future for that deal.

The European Commission’s legal service has said CETA only needs the approval of EU institutions - the Parliament and Council - because it only covers matters that are exclusive EU competence.

But commission president Jean-Claude Juncker agreed in the 11th hour to put the text to a vote by up to 38 national and regional parliaments.

He did so under pressure from Austria, France and Germany, who hope that this is the way to reign in anti-trade and eurosceptic feelings.

Ratifications could take five years or longer if some assemblies vote against it.

The EU executive hoped to speed up the process and protect the deal against rejections by asking the Council to approve a provisional application.

Rejections would be left to national governments to deal with, as is the case with the Ukraine association agreement that was rejected by a referendum in the Netherlands.

But last Thursday, Slovak trade council president Peter Ziga told the European Parliament’s international trade (INTA) committee he wasn't sure that ministers would agree on provisional application and said it definitely wouldn’t happen for CETA’s investment chapter.

"That would be a death sentence to CETA," Swedish MEP and INTA member Christofer Fjellner told EUobserver.

The right to negotiate trade policy has long been a core power of the EU. The Lisbon Treaty also put it in charge of investments.

As member states (and regions) now claim the right to veto EU authority, the bloc is bound to be the loser.

Fjellner said the EU jeopardised its credibility as a trading partner if it failed to implement the CETA deal, which took five years to work out.

This undermined its position in other fields as well, he added.

"How can we save the world from climate change if we can't even agree to standards with our most like-minded nations in Canada or the US," Fjellner asked.

But above all, it showed the problems of the European project to defend itself from nationalism and protectionism within.

”If the EU cannot protect its trade policy from member states - what can it then defend,” he added.

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MEPs' first exchange of views on CETA revealed that the socialist block is still undecided on the deal, and Canada's visa obligation for Bulgarian and Romanian citizens looks like a major stumbling block.

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