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A European View on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP): Great Expectations?!

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Momentous changes sometimes come by inconspicuous names. The TTIP, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, might just fall into that category... Those four letters might very well be the most important agreement the EU and the U.S. have ever concluded. However, we have to be honest here -- this would only be the case if it were to be concluded. So far, the "preliminaries" alone have shown us that optimism might be premature -- we should not underestimate the challenges ahead.

After the European Parliament, today it is up to the Council (i.e. EU Member States) to approve the mandate for the negotiations; since in the EU, it is the European Commission (or more specific, General Directorate Trade) leading the negotiations. This truly is an arduous task: It does not only involve navigating through the negotiations themselves, but also coordinating with 27 Commissioners and reporting back to 753 Members of the European Parliament as well as 28 heads of state and government, who all gave their "red lines" and priorities. The process needs to be transparent and inclusive, for in the end, both Council and European Parliament have to accept any outcome. Still, in the EU, in the end, it is about "take it or leave it".

In the U.S., the situation is more complicated; something European observers often do not take into account. The main problem in the U.S. is that bipartisan support is needed for the TTIP - and with new elections never far away, this might prove difficult. In general, Congress has the right to amend any trade agreement -- after the negotiations ended. Although as an elected parliamentarian, I respect Parliament's rights, this might potentially jeopardise the negotiations. Who wants to go trough the long and tiresome process of negotiation if, in the end, when everything seems to be wrapped up, Congress opens Pandora's Box and changes it all? More often than not, the outcome of such agreements is a carefully arranged compromise -- a house of cards, so to speak. Any change to that might just make it collapse. Still, there is a solution to that -- called "fast track" (nowadays known under the name of trade promotion authority). The president can ask Congress for authority to negotiate new trade agreements (or better allow the Trade Representative to do so) and then bring the final agreement to Congress for an up-or-down vote. No amendments allowed; no filibuster possible. We have to admit, trade agreements have been concluded in the past without fast track authority, but this might be walking a tightrope. Without fast track, any trade agreement would be subject to a vote on any amendments the House or Senate want to table.

Seeing what the TTIP might include, I assume amendments might come by the dozen -- for the TTIP is not only about negotiating a free trade agreement between the European Union and the United States of America; it is not only about mere tariff barriers. Current tariffs are only three percent on average, so removing them will only be a small part of TTIP. Non-tariff barriers, regulatory restrictions might be by far the more rewarding objective. The aim of TTIP is broader than your "average" trade agreement -- it is about deepening cooperation through harmonisation and convergence of policy measures. It might be one of the most powerful instruments to overcome the aftermath of the financial and economical crisis.

This point might also explain why the EU -- having already concluded free trade agreements with South Africa, Mexico, South Korea and currently negotiating agreements with ASEAN and India, among others, or the US with its big NAFTA, have only started negotiations on a EU-U.S. agreement now. It makes so much sense: Total U.S. investment in the EU is three times higher than in all of Asia. EU investment in the U.S. is around eight times the amount of EU investment in India and China together. U.S. and EU economies together account for about half the world GDP and for nearly a third of world trade flows. It is thus simple math that an agreement between those two makes sense -- there is so much so win for both. The EU impact assessment shows that economic growth could be boosted by more than 0.5 percent - - with virtually no costs. Exports would be boosted, new jobs created. Furthermore, in times of globalized trade, a stalling Doha-round and emerging regions such as China and India on the verge of dominating the global trade, revitalizing the transatlantic project might not only foster economic growth but also help our position on the international stage.

Still, last week, I read one title -- "TTIP - victory of hope against experience." Maybe, this is right -- there are many differences, not only with regard to political systems, but also with regard to political cultures. While the U.S.' main objective is free markets, free trade (although this not necessarily being a prime Democrats' objective) and its prime concern competitiveness, one of Europe's driving forces is social balance. Also, the EU approach to follow the precautionary principle is something less applauded in the U.S. -- and these differences in political culture lead to a difference in political measures. Still, in many fields, the outcome is at least comparable. Car emissions standards, safety standards at work or consumer protection -- there are many areas where we might use different instruments, but aim for the same objective in the end. If we succeed in taking this as a starting point, TTIP might become a success after all.

Another thing which is entirely clear in the EU is that the U.S. is not that centralized federal entity (anymore). Because of -- or maybe despite of -- the deadlock in Washington, it seems that more and more initiatives stem from state level: You find cap and trade systems, initiatives on renewable energy or chemicals regulation (remarkably similar to Europe's REACh) -- but all (only) on state level. Whether this valuable impetus will find its way into TTIP remains to be seen.

Anyhow, before we can enter into content-based negotiations, also the U.S. side needs to deal with the preliminaries -- and decide on the way the TTIP is adopted in the end. This is why the coming weeks, with a potential decision on whether or not to accept fast track authority, might be decisive. We hope that our friends accept that TTIP is not "a win" for one party, but possibly and ideally for the whole country. We hope Congress realizes -- as it has done often before -- that you cannot negotiate with the whole political range of 535 members of Congress. After all: The EU does it the same way.

I think we have to primarily think of each other as friends -- not allies, not partners in trade, but friends. In the end, it might be as simple as that. Friends might have different opinions, but they respect their opinions in an atmosphere of mutual trust.

Whether news about "spy programs" help such a friendship -- I doubt it. Clearly, mutual trust is not something that goes together with collecting data in secret. Respecting basic rights (and personal data) of each other's citizens is a prerequisite. Still, claims to stop further progress on TTIP are exaggerated. Being good partners, we should inform each other, but we should also verify whether this is a general approach or only happening in limited cases. PRISM -- as it has been made public by the media these last days -- is not something we can accept, but being friends, we should also not think the worst as soon as allegations arise. Friends can argue, but this does not mean their friendship is over. The important thing is to keep this argument separate from TTIP. It is too important to be used as bait or hold it hostage.

Jackson Janes recently compared TTIP with a game of chess. This might be a nice image, but in chess, there is -- nearly always -- one winner and one loser. With TTIP; however, we are quite certain that it allows both partners to win.

Only in one aspect, the image might work: A game of chess is demanding and needs attentive players. Also for TTIP, we need political will and leadership -- of the highest level. With the multitude of possible hindrances ahead, we need political initiative from both sides. We need to make sure that the we continue to inform the public and to keep focus and pressure, possibly also through joint platforms such as the Transatlantic Legislators' Dialogue.

We need, as Jackson Janes put it, passion and perseverance. Then, the great expectations might come true after all.