Brussels nervous on public reaction to EU-US trade talks
By Benjamin Fox
The European Commission last week discussed with member states how best to go about communicating a EU-US trade deal to the public and national media.
The meeting took place on Friday (22 November) and was attended by national officials in charge of dealing with media relations.
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A paper accompanying the meeting called 'Communicating on TTIP' - and obtained by Danish magazine Notat - outlines the EU's media strategy during the talks.
Formal talks on a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) started in July but the scope of the talks and what it could mean for consumers has been the subject of controversy.
"The aim is to define, at this early stage in the negotiations, the terms of the debate by communicating positively about what the TTIP is about rather than being drawn reactively into defensive communication about what TTIP is not," the paper states.
Commission spokesman John Clancy played down the significance of the meeting.
"We're simply doing our job, we recognise the importance of keeping governments informed and of taking stock of how national media are covering the talks," he said.
"This wasn't a secret meeting… it was just an informal discussion on how to share best ideas between governments."
Most EU governments and MEPs are enthusiastic supporters of an EU-US trade deal, which would comfortably be the largest of its kind, lured by its potential economic benefits.
The EU executive estimates that the deal could be worth up to €275 billion a year to the two sides, of which roughly €100 billion a year would be for the EU - equivalent to an additional 0.5 percent of EU GDP.
EU leaders are also anxious to see swift progress on the talks with a view to reaching a final agreement by 2015.
Research carried out for the commission has also suggested that a trade agreement would create up to 2 million new jobs.
However, the first notes of concern about the negotiations were sounded prior to the last round of talks held in Brussels earlier this month.
A series of consumer groups and NGOs expressed fears that an agreement could water down EU standards on environmental protection and food safety, including genetically modified products. The charge was swiftly rejected by the EU's chief negotiator, Ignacio Garcia Bercero.
For its part, MEPs have insisted that the EU executive keeps them informed of the progress of negotiations.
Although the commission is solely responsible for negotiating on behalf of the EU, any deal would require the support of the European Parliament and national governments to be adopted.
The paper also indicates that the collapse of the controversial anti-counterfeit treaty Acta, which MEPs vetoed last July, weighs heavily on the commission's mind. Acta fell apart amid complaints that the commission had negotiated in secret before presenting the Parliament with a fait accompli.
The negotiating process "needs to be transparent enough to reduce fears and avoid a mushrooming of doubts before the deal is even concluded," states the paper.
"Expectations of transparency from stakeholders are higher than in previous trade negotiations," it adds.
Although the negotiations are held behind closed doors, the commission says that 350 representatives from NGOs, business and consumer groups met with the EU and US chief negotiators for an update on the talks earlier this month.
But the paper also reflects fears that the state of the EU's battered economy could weaken the bloc's hand in negotiations.
"Many of the fears about what TTIP may represent are linked to a perception that the EU is not in a sufficiently strong position to engage with the United States," the paper comments, emphasising the need for "making sure that this is a negotiation between equals."
"We need TTIP more than they (the US) do," it concedes.