Summer 2013 represented the kick-off of major trade negotiations between the EU and US aiming for an agreement to make it easier for economic actors from both sides of the Atlantic to engage into trade. These negotiations, known under the acronym TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), represent a unique exercise of bringing down barriers to trade between the world’s two biggest economic blocks hoping to boosting the economy, spurring growth and creating jobs – and resisting economic challenges from emerging blocks.
Among TTIP’s numerous facets, many have direct relevance in terms of consumer protection. TTIP can be an excellent opportunity to address shortcomings in the current consumer protection frameworks on both sides of the Atlantic, such as regards exchange of data and evidence on safety hazards with products, chemicals, food, and pharmaceuticals. It is also an opportunity to provide EU and US consumers with more choice, by opening up domestic markets to products and services that originate in the partner block. TTIP however also bears many potential risks of watering down existing consumer protection rules, in the EU or in the US, because they are considered to be disruptive for transatlantic trade.
In the context of the current economic crisis, there is a political trend that considers consumer protection rules as a regulatory burden, disrupting transatlantic trade and preventing an increased flow of goods and services between the EU and the US. There is therefore a risk that these considerations will underpin the negotiations and will lead to a final agreement that would endanger the regulatory consumer protection framework that currently exists in the EU.
Therefore it is key that consumer representatives are vocal and participate actively in the work surrounding the TTIP negotiations, in order to influence the philosophy and content of the final agreement in the most consumer friendly way.
As a fundamental principle, we believe that an agreement aiming for so-called regulatory convergence will only be acceptable if it lays down the highest standards of consumer protection, while affording both trading partners the autonomy to adopt stronger protection measures. This means that a free trade deal must not limit the US and the EU and its member countries from maintaining, adopting and enforcing standards that provide higher levels of consumer protection than those required by the agreement, including in the face of scientific uncertainty; and such protections must not be subject to challenge under the terms of the agreement.
In this context, one “easy solution” to boost trade that is often mentioned is that of mutual recognition: each block may keep its domestic rules, but should accept products that have been manufactured according to the other block’s rules, even if they do not comply with the domestic ones. From the consumer perspective, this is unacceptable, because consumers expect all products on the markets to comply with the same levels of quality and safety. In the short term, this means that there is a risk of presence in the EU of products that do not comply with our standards , without consumers being made aware of this. In the long term, because of the competitive disadvantage that domestic producers will have in this situation – as they will have to continue producing according to stricter domestic rules – they will put pressure on policy makers to water down provisions. So the safety or other standard of products would be reduced.
A second fundamental principle is one of transparency: this negotiation must be conducted in an open manner, with negotiating texts made public at key points. While TTIP negotiators have made initial efforts to reach out to stakeholders, recently published figures by transparency lobby-group Corporate Europe Observatory indicate that 93% of meetings of European Commission trade officials are with industry lobbyists . There is a need for equal access to decision makers, and also for more balanced briefing possibilities by a wider variety of stakeholders on the different issues at stake in order to properly prepare the negotiation rounds.
Relevant consumer sectors
There are many sectors where TTIP could provide for improvement of consumer protection rules, but where there is also a risk that either for EU or US consumers provisions be watered down: food quality and safety, emerging technologies, financial protection, data protection and privacy (certainly after the PRISM scandal), intellectual property rights, drugs and medical devices, energy and climate change, investor state dispute resolution.
Especially when it comes to food safety, inspection and safety standards must be established at the highest level to ensure consumer protection. TTIP can help help to improve rather than dismantle food safety by setting up animal identification systems for tracing food to its origin, discuss the phase out of antibiotics for non-therapeutic use in animals, and a establish a Transatlantic food safety alert notification. Trading partners must be free to establish food safety, nutrition and labelling standards that are stronger than the harmonized norm and that meet the objective of consumer protection and environmental and ethical considerations.
How vocal are consumer organisations?
BEUC, The European Consumer Organisation, together with its members from 31 European countries, has created several alliances in order to raise the profile of civil society in TTIP. First of all, we regularly exchange views with all relevant services and staff within the European Commission in order to raise their awareness and interest for the consumer perspective in TTIP. Then, through TACD – the Trans-Atlantic Consumer Dialogue (On 29 October, TACD organises a public conference in Brussels on TTIP and the consumer perspective.) –we cooperate with US consumer organisations to campaign for a consumer-friendly outcome of the negotiations TACD has prepared policy resolutions on all consumer relevant aspects and will share them with public and decision makers. BEUC also works with other Brussels based civil society organisations, such as Friends of the Earth Europe (FoEE) to raise our common concerns on TTIP via different campaigns.
While the negotiations are organised by the European Commission, an important political actor is the European Parliament (Ep), that has to intervene to support or reject the agreement. Everybody still has in mind the crucial role played by the EP for ACTA, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement: this agreement was finally rejected and one of the reasons for this was a total lack of transparency by the European Commission on the content of the negotiations and their impact on fundamental rights. While the Commission seems to have taken on board some of the lessons to be learned after ACTA, BEUC counts on the EP to monitor and block the political process in case TTIP would lead to a similar negative outcome for EU citizens. That is why we are in close contact with the MEPs to constantly share our TTIP views with them.
TTIP negotiations represent a key moment for transatlantic (but also global) trade. The partnership will set the legal and administrative framework for consumer protection rules for many years to come. It is therefore crucial that the right balance is struck between a free trade zone and a high level of consumer protection. Negotiators should therefore pay specific attention to provide balanced consideration to the concerns expressed by all stakeholders, and in particular consumers, and this in spite of massive presence of industry lobbyists and huge pressure on their behalf.