TTIP Negotiations and the "Veil of Ignorance"
Support for TTIP is slowly but surely crumbling, making it increasingly unlikely that the largest free trade agreement in the world will be concluded any time soon – if at all. Decision-makers on both sides of the Atlantic clearly underestimated the mobilizing capabilities of a digitally connected civil society and are now desperate to appease the critics. Trust has been shattered and bridging seems increasingly unlikely. A thorough reading of John Rawls might have saved negotiators from growing opposition.
The TTIP negotiations had such a good start and created excitement among politicians talking about a new transatlantic project and a revitalization of EU-US relations; despite short-lived resentments of the NSA surveillance controversy. In total, the debate on the transatlantic free trade agreement appeared to evolve in the intended direction and was initially seen in a positive light. The formerly used term ‘TAFTA' was quickly dismissed (to a large extent due to its similarity to the critically evaluated NAFTA-agreement between the US, Canada and Mexico which after 20 years of existence mostly benefited the US and left the other two comparatively worse off) and substituted by the dulcet term ‘partnership'. In addition, mainstream media was welcoming the new narrative of promised wealth and welfare and due to its alleged ‘neutrality', printed the provided numbers and calculations on estimated growth and job creation without taking into doubt their underlying validity.
This, however, does not really come as a big surprise: in a society with growing information asymmetries and a reduced attention span, short often means beautiful (signified by both the appeal of abbreviations like TTIP and the reduction of complex issues to simple numerals) and expert-knowledge is widely unquestioned. Thus, involved politicians and the cohorts of business lobbyists felt assured that they could focus on their closed-door negotiations without disturbing and delaying interference of the electorate. Nonetheless, since mid-2013 dynamics rapidly changed and abruptly ended the short-lived happy time of the exclusive trade talks.
As with ACTA in 2012, doubts about TTIP arose among an increasingly concerned and digitally well-connected civil society and were further nurtured by growing access to quickly spreading information via social media. Besides, leaked documents - among other worrisome facts - unveiled the so-called ‘holistic' communicational strategy of the EU Commission as an attempt to control and steer the public debate right from the start. To quote:
"The aim is to define, at this early stage in the negotiations, the terms of the debate by communicating positively about what TTIP is about (i.e. economic gains and global leadership on trade issues), rather than being drawn reactively into defensive communication about what TTIP is not about (e.g. not about negotiating data privacy, not about lowering EU regulatory standards etc.). For the approach to be successful it needs to be both proactive and quickly reactive, involving monitoring of public debate, producing targeted communications media material and deploying that material through all channels including online and social."
Undoubtedly, this strategy now has to be deemed as an utter failure. Critical voices, provided with such obvious proof about the ‘‘exclusive", "corporate" character of TTIP, gained significant argumentative strength over the last few months. The very moment when EU Trade Commissioner Karel de Gucht remorsefully offered more open and transparent negotiations in mid-January 2014 not only revealed sudden unease in Brussels, but also signified a confession of guilt.
Subsequently, the foot soldiers of the pro-TTIP league were sent out on a mission to contain the damage and restore the trust that has been squandered before by means of public talks and hearings. One of their reiterated main arguments is that it is common global practice that bilateral trade deals are largely concluded behind closed doors and under the ‘mandate' and in the ‘interest' of the widely excluded respective societies. This point may be correct, but is it also valid? Both the USA and the EU once promised to be exceptional in offering democratic inclusion, institutional transparency, and overall justice to their citizens. However, the case of TTIP reveals that this largely remains an empty promise. Decision-makers struggle to put aside their elitist mask and encapsulate themselves from civil society. As such, TTIP exemplifies a deepening cleavage between the people and their elected representatives (often joined by unelected lobbyists). Unfortunately, it is this obvious discrepancy that plays directly into the hands of various EU-critics, radical populists and general opponents of trade.
So to say, it becomes obvious that the current attempt to succeed with bridge building ‘post' is not making up for the missed chance of bridge building ‘ante'. Though, in hindsight, the whole story could have looked quite different if policy-makers would have thoroughly adhered to the writings of moral philosopher John Rawls and his idea of a ‘veil of ignorance' (Theory of Justice, 1971). Rawls suggested that a future (in our case: trade) order must be designed and discussed from what he calls the ‘original position': in which the involved parties act as if they have no knowledge about their future position in the new societal arrangement. To be precise: "No one knows his place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like."
Hence, from the very beginning the participating negotiators have to directly take into account the potential implications for diverse groups of society (e.g., in regard to TTIP, it would mean to also include the perspectives and potential burdens of consumers, environmentalists, netizens, etc.) with the aim to eliminate or at least limit their corporate bias. In this regard, it is important to note that the Internet has created an efficient option for decision-makers to engage multiple societal stakeholders in this process and include the broad diversity of positions in the best possible way.
In an ideal case, this inclusive and fluid approach would help to early anticipate arising wishes and worries and thereby allow for a more just, fair, and publicly admissible result once the ‘veil of ignorance' is lifted. Unfortunately, it seems that the negotiation partners in Washington and Brussels so far have terribly misunderstood the central meaning of the ‘veil of ignorance': They continue hiding under a ‘veil' to proceed with their non-transparent trade talks and remain widely ‘ignorant' to the concerns and interests of their societies. Therefore, my concluding policy recommendation to the transatlantic negotiators would be: read Rawls - better twice.
Marc Venhaus is a PhD-Candidate in International Political Economy (IPE) and International Relations (IR) at the Graduate School of Global Politics, Freie Universität Berlin & Fudan University Shanghai. Moreover, he is Co-Founder of the Berlin Forum on Global Politics (BFoGP). This article reflects his own personal view.
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