'Greater Public Scrutiny' Needed of Secret US-EU Trade Negotiations, MPs Warn

The debate over the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) continues to suffer from a lack of transparency, warns a report by the UK Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) Committee.

The secretive nature of the negotiations between the European Union and the United States on this major free trade deal has resulted in an “oversimplification and misrepresentation of arguments on both sides” the Committee concludes.

Adrian Bailey, Chair of the BIS Committee said: “More detail needs to be made available to allow greater public scrutiny of this extensive trade agreement.”

The report argues that “Everyone involved in the debate on TTIP—campaigners, lobbyists, the UK Government and the European Commission—must ensure that an evidence-based approach is at the heart of any TTIP debate.”

Unfortunately, in the absence of that detail or undertakings that negotiating texts will be made public, the debate on the trade agreement has become polarised.”

Environmental Risks

The high degree of secrecy means it is impossible to monitor or evaluate what issues are being taken into account the report explains. This echoes concerns previously raised by MPs about whether or not environmental risks are being taken into consideration.

In particular, TTIP’s investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanism would allow foreign companies and private investors to sue governments for the loss of future profits caused by decisions made in national parliaments.

As the report highlights, this allows for “the possibility of US oil companies challenging environmental regulations on fracking.” Other examples include challenging regulations on chemicals in food and cosmetics as well as EU restrictions on genetically modified organisms.

While ISDS provisions are not new, and are often found in bilateral investment treaties, the report concludes: “We do not believe that the case has yet been made for ISDS clauses in TTIP.”

Race To The Bottom

This is not the first government report to question the need for ISDS clauses. On 10 March, the UK parliamentary environmental audit committee (EAC) argued that the trade deal should not allow US companies to sue European nations when they pass environmental laws that hurt their profits.

The EAC also found that the trade deal could result in a “race to the bottom”, where attempts to align EU environmental safeguards to those in the US – which are generally seen to be weaker – could undermine or dilute environmental protections.

However, because the negotiation process is ongoing, and much of the detail has yet to be agreed on or made public, it is “not possible to come to a definitive conclusion on the benefits or risks of an extensive trade agreement,” the BIS Committee states.

The Committee argues that the European Commission and the UK Government “must shoulder some of the blame” for the fact that only a minimal level of information has been made available about TTIP.

Transparency Needed

Lord Livingston, the Minister of State for Trade and Investment, agreed. He told the Committee that “a greater level of transparency was necessary and that this was now being addressed.”

The European Commission recently published some EU negotiating texts; however, it refuses to publish agendas or minutes of meetings held. It also argues that for data protection reasons, it cannot publish the names of meeting participants without their consent.

In calling for greater transparency, the BIS Committee report added that it was “deeply concerned” that there will be no formal response by the UK Government to the European Commission’s current consultation on ISDS with member states.

It does not give the impression that the Government is treating seriously the concerns that have been raised about the range or use of such clauses and serves only to fuel the existing scepticism held by opponents of TTIP,” the report states. “We disagree with this approach. We argue that a formal response should be submitted and for that response to be made available for public scrutiny.”

@kylamandel

Photo: Open Democracy via Flickr