TTIP: The Lobby plague is coming

The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is a free trade agreement currently being negotiated between the United States and the European Union, aiming at increasing trade and (dangerously) seeking “regulatory coherence.” If adopted, TTIP would become the world’s largest free trade and investment agreement, opening both markets for exchange in goods, services, investment, and public procurement.

While the negotiations are being held in secret on both sides of the Atlantic, a large number of concerns arose in Europe on the actual benefits of such a trade agreement and its potential impact on EU legislation on digital rights as well as environmental protection, public health, agriculture, consumer rights, and labour standards.

Harmonising legislation under TTIP

In a previous post, we’ve talked about the risks of the inclusion of a chapter on Investor to State Dispute Settlement in the TTIP. Through this dispute resolution mechanism, foreign companies will have ability to challenge EU legislation in front of arbitration courts, acting outside of domestic judicial systems. However, this controversial mechanism is not the only measure included in TTIP that could put EU legislation in jeopardy, the “regulatory coherence framework” also presents significant risks.

Last December, shortly before the start of the third round of trade negotiations between the United States and European Union, EU transparency organisation Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) published an interesting leak on the substance of the talks. The document — an EU position paper on the “Chapter on Regulatory Coherence” — illustrates how negotiators foresee harmonisation of legislation between the EU and the US.

According to this document, the US and the EU authorities will have to inform each other, at least twice a year, “on upcoming initiatives in the pipeline” and will develop together a “regulatory dialogue.” Through this dialogue, governments and companies will be able to stop proposed legislation which conflicts with their interests, even before they have been publicly introduced, if it has a “potential significant trade impact.”

Moreover, the document states that the EU and the US can require information of each other on existing legislation that impacts trade. This measure could potentially lead to the deregulation or re-negotiation of existing legislation for the sake of harmonisation. Considering the significant differences between the EU and the US framework for protection of fundamental rights and consumer rights, this measure could severely undermine EU standards for privacy and data protection amongst other protections.

Lobbying on TTIP

Beyond the agreement, the lobbying process itself has raised flags as well. Lobbying is a billion-euro industry in Brussels, where several firms have invested in offices situated within a kilometre of the European institutions, ready to influence the crafting of several crucial pieces of legislation.

According to Corporate Europe Observatory, there are at least 30,000 lobbyists in Brussels, nearly matching the 31,000 staff employed by the European commission and making it second only to Washington in the concentration of those seeking to affect legislation. As lobbying is a crucial part of the climate in both Brussels and Washington, the negotiations on TTIP taking place in both sides of the Atlantic are likely to attract a plague of corporate lobbyists.

Education programmes to stop concerns

As Europe is justifiably concerned about the potential impact of the trade agreement, some US lobby groups are planning to implement an “education programme,” in order to reassure Europeans on the benefits of TTIP. For instance, Europe views’ on restricting GMOs and hormones in food largely differ from the US approach, for example. However, the U.S. Meat Export Federation’s key priority for this agreement is for the EU to reverse its ban on beef treated with certain growth hormones. It has recently published a letter introducing the idea of changing Europe’s views (and subsequently, legislation) through “a process of education involving ‘thought leaders’ from both sides of the ocean.”

This letter also specifies that such education programme should be conducted outside of the trade negotiation, probably to avoid linking the two processes. If the meat industry is the first one to put forward such programme, other industries might follow their path in the future. We can imagine major IT companies coming to Europe to “teach” us the benefit of free flow of data in order to reduce EU citizens’ concern for privacy.

In fact, a similar initiative was already launched by the American Chamber of Commerce to the EU during the negotiation on the Data Protection Reform over the past two years. Specifically, a series of ten data protection events were organised around Europe during which a US representative warned Europeans that the data protection reform could “instigate a trade war.” The American Chamber of Commerce in Sweden, who was involved in these data protection events, is now promoting the benefits of TTIP though educational videos.

The intense level of lobbying activities during the Data Protection Reform led to the creation of the website LobbyPlag. This website lists all the Members of the European Parliament that not only proposed amendments suggested by lobbyists, but literally copied and pasted huge passages of text written by these special interests. As TTIP is tipping towards another plague of lobbyists, another lobbyplag campaign may be necessary.

Summer school

Despite the increasing concerns on the European side of the Atlantic, BusinessEurope, a major lobby group involved in the negotiations, is calling for a rapid conclusion of the TTIP. Moreover, to help speed up the negotiations, Emma Marcegaglia — President of BusinessEurope and chair of the Italian state owned oil company, ENI — is planning a joint tour of Europe alongside the US Chamber of Commerce in the coming months to promote the benefits of TTIP.

So far, government authorities and business lobbyists have focused on promoting the theoretical economic benefits on GDPs, wages, and companies revenues. However, the social costs of removing barriers to trade and harmonizing legislation is rarely if ever taken into account. Whether profits are increased or not through TTIP, society might end up paying a higher price by giving up Europe’s high standard for data protection. For instance, the Data Protection Reform mentioned earlier, which barely got out of the European Parliament in one piece after the intense lobbying it faced, might very well be watered down through TTIP, leaving EU citizens with weak and outdated protection for their personal data.

As the EU and the US delegations are starting the fifth round of negotiation this week, consumer groups, NGOs, and civil society groups in Europe are intensifying their effort to denounce these lobbying activities, calling for greater transparency in the talks, and increasing citizen awareness around this trade agreement. To this end, Access and more than 240 other NGOs sent a letter to EU Commissioner for Trade Karel de Gucht on May 19th, the opening day of this round of negotiations.

The negotiations on this major trade agreement started a year ago and will likely continue until summer 2015, when the EU and the US administrations are expected to conclude a deal. After Data Protection, Access Now is ready to fight this new lobby plague and stand up for user rights!