The free trade agreement between Europe and America raises the possibility that consumer, employee and environmental protections will be seen as inconveniences that can be reduced rather than levelled between the two partners.
The wave of announcements on both sides of the Atlantic on the proposed negotiations between the European Union and the United States on the ‘world’s biggest ever’ free trade deal came with a surge of positive predictions of such an agreement’s impact and not without good reason. After all, the EU and US enjoy one of the closest economic partnerships in the world and certainly the largest.
If you look at the relationship in terms of bilateral trade, the picture is pretty clear with more than €2bn a day passing between the two in 2012. According to the Office of the US Trade Representative, transatlantic investment is directly responsible for around 6.8 million jobs. It is a relationship that has a broad impact. Not only does it help to produce economic prosperity on both sides of the Atlantic but also in dozens of other trading partners around the world.
It is hard to argue that any measures that might make this partnership more efficient, or remove barriers to competition would not be a good thing. Of course, as with any relationship in which both sides are competing, the positive aspects come with a few negatives. Disagreements and tariffs may be minor but they do pose a barrier to access for both EU and US businesses. Current subsidies and state support ensure that in some areas competition is less than ideal, or even impossible.
And while it is probably true that some of these issues are protectionist in some way or intended to protect European or US industries, many of them are not. Limitations and barriers to competition when it comes to the export of agricultural products are a case in point, some are clearly intended to protect and subsidise producers. Others like limitations on the use of genetically modified organisms infesting the food chain and concerns about intellectual property reflect more serious concerns about accessibility, technology and safety.
It is these differences between European and American approaches – everything from agricultural policy, chemical safety regulations, data protection, intellectual property and many more – that will become battlegrounds. This was acknowledged when International Trade Committee MEPs on Thursday warned European Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht that hard bargaining would be needed to close a deal acceptable to the European Union public. And it is the public that need to be convinced.
For it is the benefit of citizens that must take precedence over any other consideration, both in terms of jobs and economic wellbeing, and with regard to consumer and employee protections and civil liberties. It would be all too easy for the terms of any agreement to be directed by corporate interest. After all, business has an undeniable and large stake in trade issues. But that raises the spectre of an EU/US agreement with the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement ACTA or the Stop Online Piracy Act like provisions tagged on at the behest of lobbyists and corporate sponsors. It raises the possibility that consumer, employee and environmental protections will be seen as inconveniences and be reduced rather than levelled between the two partners.
It might even be hard for MEPs and national governments to object to what they might see as inconsequential or minor issues in particular areas when there is an entire trade deal, an agreement that has an impact on hundreds of billions of euros, at stake. Those of us who want to see a healthy relationship between the US and EU, who want to see unnecessary barriers reduced, have a responsibility to ensure that we look carefully at any proposals. We must act decisively when there are problems, however small they may appear, if they threaten the progress the EU has been making over the last decade.
Above all it is vital that the negotiations are open, transparent and that those involved in them are accountable. That is not too much to ask and it is certainly achievable. We must of course stand against anything that erodes the protections that have been so hard fought and instead aim to extend those protections to the citizens in the countries we partner with. These negotiations, indeed the whole US-EU trade deal represent a massive opportunity in economic terms and in cementing real public involvement in our future prosperity, something to be grasped with both hands.