EU admits 'unrealistic' to close TTIP deal this year
Negotiations on the EU-US free trade agreement TTIP will continue until 19 January 2016, before taking a "natural pause" when the Obama administration leaves the White House.
This was announced by Slovakia's minister of economy Peter Ziga and EU trade commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem following an informal meeting of trade ministers in Bratislava on Friday (23 September).
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"We had a discussion on the state of play of negotiations and it ensued that it's not realistic to complete the talks before the end of the year," Ziga said.
"Some countries view the glass as empty, others as half-full, and the rest as half-empty. Many things still need to be achieved in negotiations."
Malmstroem, for her part, said "it was always [EU's] intention to sign a good agreement."
The comprehensive, new generation trade agreement had set out to scrap non-tariff barriers - such as mismatched rules and standards - which are holding back trade in the 21st century.
But it has been feared that increased trade could hurt sensitive groups in both blocs, such as farmers in the EU and American companies providing services and goods to US public procurement. So far, parties have failed to find compromise.
After three years and 14 rounds of negotiations, the EU and US still have not managed to close a single negotiation chapter. The lack of progress has been accompanied by an unprecedented mobilisation of protesters who fear that TTIP could threaten social and environmental standards.
Now it seems that time has run out for the deal, at least in the foreseeable future.
Malmstroem reminded that when a new US president takes over, it will take five to six months before the US Senate appoints a trade representative.
"If we haven't finished negotiations by 19 January, there will be a natural pause," Malmstroem said. "When we re-start is a bit early to speculate."
At that time, however, election campaigns will be in full swing in France and Germany, where public opinion have been critical of TTIP.
On Friday morning, Austria's vice-chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner said TTIP talks should be called off after the US elections and resume with a better defined mandate, greater transparency, and a different name.
"In our view, and this is also the view of other countries, the current procedure will not lead to success," he said.
Trade ministers, in parallel, agreed to saving the EU-Canada trade agreement, CETA.
"With CETA, we achieved everything we didn't get with TTIP," Ziga said. "CETA is a benchmark for trade agreements."
The deal was concluded two years ago already, but has since been awaiting ratification. Anti-TTIP feelings have rubbed off on CETA, which is called "a Trojan horse" and "TTIP's little sister" by trade critics.
In the face of public criticism, the European Commission had already bowed to pressure from member states, giving them power to ratify the deal, rather than leaving it only to EU institutions' approval.
But that makes CETA subject to the consent of up to 28 national and a few regional parliaments who feel they should have a say on EU trade policy. To speed up the deal, the commission suggested that CETA will be provisionally applied after receiving the European Parliament and Council’s backing.
Ziga pointed to the fact that Canada was both a like-minded and small country [of 35 million people], and Malmstroem asked whom the EU could do deals with, if it couldn't do it with Canada.
Still, the deal has been under fire from some of Europe's left-wing leaders who feared it could endanger social and environmental standards.
EU trade ministers in Bratislava said they would likely gather for an extraordinary meeting in mid-October and sign a declaration that specifies that CETA cannot be applied in a way that harms the provision of public services or lowers environmental standards.
Experts are also busy analysing what parts of the agreement could be applied provisionally and which clauses should be left for national assemblies to approve.
"It's likely that the parts related to investment protection belong to the latter category," Malmstroem said.
Some 100 organisations, including trade unions and environmental watchdogs had gathered outside the building in Bratislava where the trade ministers met, and called on their leaders to reject both CETA and TTIP.
Asked by a journalist whether ministers were concerned about what voters were saying, Malmstroem said:
"Of course, we all live in the real world, we are very much aware that there are protests in some countries. In the vast majority of countries, there is a general support for TTIP and CETA. We really are committed jointly that we have a good deal that respects the red lines."
Peter Ziga said he was happy that Bratislava had attracted people who would not otherwise see his city.
"I’m happy this promotes tourism in Slovakia,” the trade minister said.