The European Union and the United States still have a long way to go: After a second round of talks on the free trade agreement, TTIP, many questions remain unanswered. And, data protection was not even addressed.
The delegations of US trade representatives and the EU Commission held five days worth of talks in Brussels about the planned free trade agreement to span both side of the Atlantic. It was the second round of negotiations after an initial set of meetings took place in Washington this summer. No concrete results or breakthroughs were achieved in the very complex questions.
US chief of negotiator Dan Mullaney was cautious in his statement following this round of talks at the press conference in Brussels: "We've had very successful and productive set of meetings this week in a good atmosphere of positive and constructive engagement. This second round this past week has given us an opportunity to probe more deeply into our respective approaches to trade and investment agreement provisions."
The negotiations on the "Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership" (TTIP) were held behind closed doors. All documents carry the "confidential" stamp. In Europe, only a small group of members of the European Parliament get access to the documents. In the United States, a selected 600 people get an insight into the details of the discussions: members of lobby groups, business groups and alliances as well as some members of Congress, whom the US negotiator has to consult on a regular basis.
Anti-globalization groups like Attac and Greenpeace have criticized the lack of transparency in the talks. The negotiation mandate which the EU Commission is following in the talks has meanwhile been published online. In Brussels, negotiators consulted a group of 400 different stakeholders whose proposals are to be considered in the talks. Just how and in what scope remains a secret.
Ignacio Garcia Bercero, the European Union's chief negotiator, remained vague in Brussels saying, "I believe that we have moved one step ahead, identifying those areas where we have common ground and therefore we can further engage on textual-base discussions in the rounds ahead."
More transparency needed
European Union chief negotiator Ignacio Garcia Bercero (r) and US chief negotiator Dan Mullaney (l) are confident.
The EU Commission ultimately needs the support of the European Parliament (EP) to pass a free trade deal. Christian Engström, an EP member from the Swedish Pirates party, reminded the European delegation that the EP let the trade agreement ACTA fail in 2012 after following massive protests. ACTA was supposed to cover property rights and patents. At the time, ACTA was also criticized for the lack of transparency in the negotiations.
"There are lots of citizens now who take an interest in these agreements. That's a very positive thing, but by insisting on the same kind of secrecy, only handing out documents to the INCTA committee the Commission itself is setting itself up for the same kind of failure," Engström said in a parliamentary debate on the free trade agreement.
Consumer groups, organic farmers, ecologists and free trade opponents have joined forces both in the United States and Europe to prevent a comprehensive TTIP. In an open letter addressed to US President Barack Obama and EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso earlier this week, protest groups demanded that talks should follow not just the interests of big companies but should also protect the rights of consumers, farmers, employees and environmental groups.
Both in the US and in Europe there are concerns that the new agreement could lower standards in terms of food security, seeds, climate protection as well as data protection and intellectual property. In Brussels, Bercero stressed that this won't happen: "We reiterated our commitment that these negotiations are not - and I repeat: are not - about lowering the standards or about globalizing our high standards of consumer, environment or other protections."
Economy expected to grow
The Federation of German Industry (BDI) doesn't share those concerns. The BDI's Stefan Mair said in Berlin that German companies expected to see "initial solutions towards the development of simpler regulations and standards which would help our companies in the transatlantic trade."
Companies are hoping to see the implementation of easier product licensing procedures on both sides of the Atlantic, for example. US agricultural companies have been pushing to export more hormone-processed meat and genetically modified crops. Europeans want better data protection for consumers involved in business deals with US companies.
"I'm convinced that if both sides show the political will we can reach an agreement that fully respects our sensitivities," Barroso said at the start of the talks. But the negotiations are about more than trade of industrial products. The focus is rather on services and mutual investment, since both considerably exceed the value of mutual industrial goods trade.
Support of parliament and member states needed
EU Trade Commissioner Karel de Gucht told the members of the European Parliament that the negotiations had to be secret in order to safeguard a balance of interests, "The EU Commission has the mandate and you will be able to vote on it."
The European Parliament and all 28 EU member states have to give their approval to any deal that may be agreed to. The EU and the US want to have agreed on a TTIP text by 2015. Many insiders believe this roadmap is too ambitious, considering the variety of complex political and technical questions. Obama wants to get the groundbreaking agreement with Europe going during his term. On the US side, the TTIP has to be approved by Congress.
But despite all apparent difficulties, Barroso has regularly pointed at the advantages of the deal between the world's two biggest economic players. According to estimates by economists, the transatlantic agreement would stimulate economic growth by some 100 billion euros in the United States and by 110 billion euros in the EU. Barroso hopes it will also stimulate business activity.
"The real beauty of this deal is that it will offer real returns of around 545 euros per average household in Europe - almost for free," he said. "This makes it the cheapest stimulus package one can imagine."