The Guardian | 26 February 2016
TTIP: EU and US vow to speed up talks on trade deal
by Jennifer Rankin
Senior European and US officials have vowed to accelerate talks on a controversial trade deal that critics say would weaken environmental and consumer standards, while giving too much power to companies to sue governments.
Negotiators from the EU and the United States confirmed they were hoping to secure agreement on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership by the end of the year. TTIP, which the EU trade commissioner once described as “the most contested acronym in Europe”, is a sweeping plan to harmonise regulatory standards, cut tariffs on thousands of items and help companies do more transatlantic business.
Talks began in July 2013, but rapidly became bogged down amid widespread public protest, with disputes breaking out over issues ranging from the French film industry to feta cheese.
Now the two sides are racing to strike a deal before Barack Obama leaves presidential office in January 2017.
On Friday, the EU’s chief negotiator, Ignacio Garcia Bercero, said it was time to pick up the pace. “We are ready to seek to conclude negotiations in 2016 provided that the substance is right.” He told journalists that the latest round of negotiations – the 12th – were being extended into next week to intensify talks on sensitive areas.
His US counterpart, Dan Mullaney, said: “We still have a lot of work to do but if we can sustain our current intensified engagement we can finish negotiations this year.”
The two sides will hold two further rounds of talks in the coming months, with the aim of getting a draft deal by July, leaving the most contentious areas to be resolved in the second half of the year.
The drive to strike a deal was underlined by the relaunch of talks this week on one of the most contentious aspects of TTIP, a special court for settling disputes between governments and investors.
The European commission wants to establish an exclusive trade court to replace the Investor-State-Dispute Settlement, a system for resolving trade disputes that has existed since the 1960s. This system is written into thousands of investment contracts, including 1,400 involving EU countries, but has aroused growing concern.
Critics say ISDS tribunals give private companies too much power to sue governments for lost profits.
Tobacco company Philip Morris used ISDS in an attempt to overturn Australia’s plain-packaging laws. Although the challenge failed, the Australian government spent an estimated A$50m (£26m) of taxpayers’ money defending the 2011 law.
More recently, TransCanada announced it was suing the US government for $15bn, after the Obama administration rejected on environmental grounds the Keystone XL pipeline, which was designed to pump oil from the tar sands of Canada.
Earlier this week, one of the UK’s leading QCs warned that TTIP would make it easier for private companies providing services to the NHS to sue the government through the special trade court.
Garcia Bercero confirmed the special court was discussed this week, having been frozen out of the negotiations in March 2014.
In response to widespread criticism, his boss, the EU trade commissioner Cecilia Malmström, last year proposed a new kind of special court for resolving disputes – the investment court system. Under the revised proposals, an international court of 15 judges and six appeal judges would be created with judges appointed by the US and the EU, rather than disputing parties, as under the current system.
The commission says this is more transparent and efficient, but critics argue it is no better than the system it replaces. In a recent report, a coalition of NGOs, including Corporate Europe Observatory and War on Want, described the new court as a “zombie ISDS”, back from the dead.
Although they concede it does contain procedural improvements, such as the appointment of judges, they argue the court still allows companies too much leeway to sue governments.
“Some of the reforms are nice – more transparency is always good – but it is not really a complete reform,” said Ska Keller, a German Green MEP who sits on the European parliament’s trade committee. “It is setting up a parallel justice system for companies. Companies of course should be able to go to court, but a normal court, as anyone else.”
Business groups are also unhappy with the commission’s proposals. “We feel it would be very difficult for companies to launch a complaint,” said Luisa Santos, director of international relations for pan-European lobby group Business Europe. She is concerned that many governments would use “the umbrella of public interest” to shelter state-owned companies from competitors.
The commission argues it has struck the right balance. “Investors have a way of ensuring their rights are properly protected,” said Garcia Bercero, “but in no way can this create any interference with the right of public authorities to regulate.”