Two weeks after the fifth round of trans-Atlantic trade talks between the EU and the US, civil society calls for transparency remain unanswered, writes Natacha Cingotti
As the latest round of talks on a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership opened last month, more than 250 civil society organisations and networks worldwide released a joint call to European Union trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht to open up the negotiations for public scrutiny. The talks will unquestionably affect domestic regulations in both the EU and the US. This means the talks will impact upon the daily lives of citizens on both sides of the Atlantic. If this is the case, then citizens have the right to know what is being negotiated on their behalf.
Two weeks on and very little has filtered out of the negotiations. Official information gives little insight into the progress of the negotiations, instead highlighting the broad areas under discussion, such as “regulatory coherence”, “labour and the environment”, and “services and investment”.
The European Commission has boasted that it is ensuring transparency in the EU-US trade talks by publishing five position papers about key sectors of the negotiations – chemicals, cosmetics, motor vehicles, pharmaceutical products, and textile and clothing. It is unclear whether these are the original negotiating papers or just memos of them. What is clear, however, is that this is far from full transparency. They fail to provide precise answers to concerns raised by civil society organisations on the content under discussion.
Approaches to transparency differ greatly between the European Commission and civil society. So much so, that freedom of information requests are currently the only way to get even basic information, such as meetings and correspondence between the European Commission and third parties (including business lobby groups, NGOs, trade unions) – for which no documents are proactively disclosed online, despite significant public interest and controversy over the EU and US trade talks.
Yet, even these requests are disappointing. In a recent request filed by Friends of the Earth Europe and Corporate Europe Observatory, in relation to correspondence between agribusiness lobby groups and DG trade on the trade talks and food safety issues in 2013, most information was blacked-out, and marked “not relevant” or “not releasable” without any further description explaining why this was the case.
So much for transparency…
The EU and US officials keep repeating that the trade deal will not be used to trade away key protection standards for the benefits of a handful of multinationals. If this is true, then a natural step towards public engagement and a democratic debate would be to publish documents in relation to interactions with third-parties – in particular for sensitive areas such as food safety.
Hiding behind exceptions made for the protection of commercial interests and international relations, whenever civil society requests access to information, can only result in one thing: ever increasing distrust towards negotiators and growing concerns that important safeguards are being traded away in secret. If there is nothing to fear in this deal, then the negotiations should be opened up to public scrutiny, and a truly democratic debate about what kind of transatlantic relations we want should be started.
Natacha Cingotti is transparency campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe