Resolving the TTIP Transparency Gap in Europe
The European trade commissioner is under pressure to provide more transparency in transatlantic negotiations. It is up to member states to unblock access to document provision reforms mandated by the Lisbon Treaty. European institutions remain bound by the same legacy rules that contributed to the failure of the ACTA agreement. European governments should see to it that a stuck reform does not undermine transatlantic trade relations and prevent public expectations from being met.
On May 5, US trade representative Michael Froman and EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht visited German Economic Minister Sigmar Gabriel in Berlin to underpin the importance of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Gabriel expressed discomfort with the confidentiality of negotiations on the envisaged trade agreement. In other news, European Parliament President Martin Schulz, the top social-democratic candidate in the European elections, publicly expressed regret over the high levels of confidentiality surrounding the agreement, suggesting he would like for TTIP negotiations to get a fresh start entirely.
Lack of transparency attracts widespread public suspicion and plays well into the hands of trade critics. Both trade chiefs have attempted to counter that by emphasizing general information documents and their broad stakeholder hearings. In fact, the actual lack of transparency is often overstated. Trade policy demands from both sides are well known. TTIP would settle existing transatlantic non-tariff trade disputes and cut remaining tariffs. Gabriel made candid remarks on the ability of campaign organizations on the political left to mobilize against the agreement, without knowing the actual contents of TTIP, and acknowledged that this threatened a successful conclusion. Unfortunately, the criticisms of consumerist campaigns against TTIP, such as a petition with 470,000 signatories organized by Campact e.V., happen to be spot on. Indeed, American export industries continue to push Europeans hard to lift the ban on chlorinated poultry, certain pharmaceuticals in meat, and genetically-modified crops. TTIP is just another channel for these US trade demands, a challenging political sell to European consumers. Significant TTIP documents leaked to the public confirmed what was already known.
What remains overlooked is that the 28 member states of the European Union hold the key to closing the general transparency gap in European trade policy. At the Council of Ministers, a legislative dossier is pending which aims to adapt the EU regulations surrounding access to documents to the Lisbon Treaty. Every time the public is denied a document concerning TTIP, it happens on grounds of the existing access to document exemptions (EC/1049/2001). Pending reforms to these rules are being blocked by member states. To improve trade-related document transparency, national governments can contribute amendments at the first reading and adopt the dossier for a second reading by the European Parliament.
Furthermore, the European Commission could step up and modify its still pending legislative proposal. The current proposal dates back to 2008 (a second de minimis proposal for Lisbon implementation from 2011 was dismissed). Why did the legislative dossier get stuck? The issue stems from the Commission's unpleasant choices ("recast procedure") and the stewardship of the European Parliament rapporteur Michael Cashman (Labour). MEP Cashman fought fiercely to include document classification rules which potentially exceed the scope of the dossier. However, the Council of Ministers is free to reject parliamentary amendments it deems inadmissible in its first reading and add trade transparency amendments. Notably, the European Parliament's first reading proposals contribute very little to improve actual transparency and some of its amendments may even worsen it.
As a result of the blocked reform, the citizens of the European Union are still stuck with the 1049 rules, which do not reflect the improvements mandated by the Lisbon Treaty. Most member states grant their public less national document transparency than the European Union level institutions (to which EC/1049/2001 applies). The prevailing rules for public access to EU documents are quite advanced, a close match to high Scandinavian transparency standards. The one exception to this trend has been in the area of trade. Lack of EU trade policy transparency has been instrumental in derailing the anti-counterfeiting trade agreement (ACTA). ACTA document access is governed by restrictive provisions identical to those that apply to TTIP. For TTIP not to become another failure in transatlantic trade relations, it is essential that the European side gets its act together. Otherwise, European institutions would be poised to apply current law and deny public requests. European governments should see to it that a stuck reform does not undermine transatlantic trade relations and prevent reasonable public expectations from being met.
André Rebentisch is a former representative of European digital media corporations and software developers before the European Parliament. In this capacity, he monitored European trade policy, among other dossiers. At present, he is consulting a Berlin web startup.