The debate over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is set to plod on in Brussels this week. Much has been made of the concerns of certain European countries – maintaining consumer and environmental standards, sinister motives for deregulation and even the erosion of democracy.
Something similar is happening in the United States, but opposition is not directed at trade across the Atlantic. The bigger bugaboo is free trade across the Pacific.
President Barack Obama is trying to seal two historic trade deals at once – TTIP on the one hand and the Trans-Pacific Partnership on the other.
Negotiations for both are running parallel, although the trans-Pacific treaty is moving faster. It has especially strategic value for the United States because it could seal the country’s geopolitical swing toward Asia, where China is growing as a serious rival.
President Obama has done a lot of legwork, but is still empty-handed. Until now, the White House has had no real negotiating power, because Congress could retroactively undo any trade agreement or make unilateral changes.
This is completely unacceptable for America’s negotiation partners in both Europe and Asia. They want to know where they stand.
The Democratic leader in the House will not support trade agreements if the White House cannot guarantee they won’t lead to job losses.
To remedy that, the president must convince Congress to grant his administration “fast-track” trade negotiating authority, which would limit approval by the House and Senate to a simple yes-or-no vote. But that won’t be easy, especially as opposition is emerging even within Mr. Obama’s own party.
Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House, has made it clear she will not support the trade agreements if the White House cannot guarantee they won’t lead to job losses.
So the Obama administration is looking for help from Republicans. “We are looking for a majority,” said a White House spokesperson. “(How) is honestly not something that concerns us.”
Talks on the transatlantic treaty, meanwhile, will continue this week in Brussels. Regulatory cooperation is at the center of what is now the eighth round of talks. European Union negotiators are pushing for the United States and Europe to better coordinate their legislation, already in the planning stages, so no new trade hurdles will emerge.
European negotiators want both sides to regularly inform the other of regulatory projects. E.U. negotiators want businesses, unions and consumer protection agencies to be able to take positions on the treaty early on.
At the heart of the issue is a “regulatory cooperation body,” an authority that would rule on regulatory disputes in the partnership. Critics fear that it could open the door to corporate lobbying and override national concerns. The E.U. Commission, however, said that isn’t so.
“The committee is a technical approach to be able to better market products and services,” said a spokesperson. “It does not affect any existing laws concerning taxes, labor or environment.”
The European concerns are being met with little understanding from U.S. negotiators.
“People are constantly coming from Europe and saying what is not acceptable,” said a source in Washington. First it was fears over chlorinated chickens, then investor protection and now the regulatory consultations.
It is also clear from the U.S. view that no agreement would be allowed to overturn national laws. “The Americans also want to publicly take this position,” said E.U. representative Elmar Brok, after talks in Congress.
Such a signal from the United States would be crucial to counter growing opposition in Europe. The “Stop TTIP” initiative has spread to 350 organizations and 1.3 million citizens have signed on. Activists will also air their anger this week in Brussels.
The pervasive opposition in Europe obscures a few realities. In nearly all E.U. countries, the majority of citizens support free trade with the United States, according to the Pew Research Center.
Poland and Denmark are at the top with more than 70 percent. Only in Germany, Austria and Luxemburg are free trade supporters in the minority.