Thursday

4th Mar 2021

An American in Strasbourg: US ambassador woos MEPs on trade pact

  • Gardner (r) charmed French reporters with his language skills (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

Anthony Gardner is not what is typically associated with US diplomacy: Fluent in French, Italian and Spanish, the US ambassador to the EU, who took office in February, managed to impress even the francophones in the Brussels press corps.

On his first trip to Strasbourg, where MEPs were just preparing to vote for the new European Commission led by Jean-Claude Juncker, Gardner said these are “historic times” because the power of the European Parliament is growing.

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Gardner met a series of top MEPs in the trade and foreign affairs committees, saying he is “very active” on promoting an EU-US free trade deal, which is currently being negotiated and which has stirred debate both in the EU assembly and in the public space.

“What concerns me is not the state of negotiations, but the negativity that has crept in the public debate in Europe,” Gardner told journalists after his meetings.

The main controversy of the moment is “Investor State Dispute Settlement” (ISDS) - a clause which allows companies to sue governments in private courts if they fail to stick to promises made in the trade deal.

ISDS are common practice and have been included in all free trade deals signed by the EU so far, as well as in some 1,400 bilateral trade deals signed by individual EU states.

But they have come under fire, particularly in Germany, where there is a fear that US companies will be able to force local authorities to lower environmental or social standards.

Garnder said there is “a lot of misinformation” on how the protection clauses work and that statistics show it is usually states who win the cases, not the companies.

“EU investors are much more frequent users of ISDS - Germans, English and Dutch - and in many cases they brought cases against fellow EU countries”, Gardner noted.

US companies hve told the ambassador they always take into account ISDS when deciding whether to invest in an EU country, because the 28 member states have various degrees of investment protection.

The issue has also poisoned relations between outgoing and incoming commissioners.

Outgoing trade commissioner Karel de Gucht last week said it would be “an absolute disaster” to unpick ISDS clauses from the Canada and Singapore deals which he recently concluded.

He said he backed the clauses because EU governments tasked the commission to do so.

“I am not doing something suspicious,” he said, warning that the next commission would also need to abide by that “negotiation mandate” unless member states agree to change it.

The incoming trade commissioner, Cecilia Malmstrom, who was part of the outgoing Barroso commission and who negotiated security data-sharing agreements with the US, also has qualms about a potential change of course under her new boss.

In his speech before MEPs on Wednesday, Juncker said he “will not accept that the jurisdiction of courts in the EU member states be limited by special regimes for investor-to-state disputes”.

He contradicted De Gucht on the negotiating mandate issue, saying “there is no obligation” to include ISDS in the EU-US free trade deal, also known by its acronym “TTIP”.

“In the agreement that my commission will eventually submit to this house for approval there will be nothing that limits for the parties the access to national courts or that will allow secret courts to have the final say in disputes between investors and states”, Juncker noted.

He tasked his “right hand”, Dutch super-commissioner Frans Timmermans, to advise him on the issue.

“There will be no investor-to-state dispute clause in TTIP if Frans does not agree with it too”, he added.

For his part, the US ambassador said he “understands and appreciates” Juncker’s position, but noted that ISDS should not be ruled out at this stage.

“We think it would be an unfortunate signal - if you are setting off the dynamics of red lines and taking things off the table, the question arises: What else comes next?”.

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