It's been a couple of months since my last TTIP update. That hiatus reflects the talks themselves, which feel strangely suspended. That's not to say nothing is happening: indeed, there's an air of desperate busy-ness beginning to creep into the proceedings as even the most fervid supporter of the agreement realises that TTIP is not going to be finished by the end of 2015, and people rush around vainly trying to do something about it. That's pretty astonishing when you remember that the original plan was to finish it by the end of 2014:
"If we're going to go down this road, we want to get it on one tank of gas," [chief US negotiator] Froman said earlier this year.
For now, one tank of gas for both sides means reaching a deal before the current European Commission, the executive branch of the EU, finishes its term at the end of 2014.
That deadline has come and gone, and even the end of 2015 is looking unrealistic. That's serious, because in 2016, the political madness that is the US Presidential race begins - and Obama will not want to have to force through an increasingly unpopular trade agreement and thus blight the chances of whoever the Democrat's candidate turns out to be. That's become an even more important concern in the wake of introduction of the US Trade Promotion Authority bill, also known as "Fast Track", a couple of weeks ago.
Fast Track essentially gives Obama full authority to negotiate trade agreements like TTIP and its sister treaty, the TransPacific Partnership agreement (TPP), with only a single, yes or no vote at the end of the process. This is exactly what happens here in the EU, where the European Commission has the authority to negotiate trade agreements, which are then presented to the European Parliament for ratification.
The big problem - for the public, at least - is that not a single comma can be changed at this stage: it's a classic take it or leave offer. This is a kind of political blackmail, since MEPs will be unwilling to be seen to reject a package that might contain some good measures - for example, potentially boosting employment - because it also contains bad things like the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS). The hope - of both the European Commission and Obama - is that lawmakers will simply swallow the bad bits in order to keep the good stuff.
But politicians are now much more aware of how unsatisfactory this blackmail is, and are trying to avoid getting into that situation. Some, like Senator Ron Wyden, who is co-sponsor of the Trade Authority bill, want to place certain conditions on the granting of fast track authority so as to make the final agreement as acceptable as possible. But many others, both Democrats and Republicans, are unwilling to grant Obama the trade authority at all, albeit for different reasons. The Democrats are concerned about the big flaws in TPP, whereas the Republicans simply don't want to give extra powers to their ideological enemy, Obama.
Whatever the reason for their revolt, US politicians are not lining up to support the Trade Promotion Authority, and it seems that its passage hangs in the balance, with its chances shifting on an almost daily basis. That has huge implications for TTIP as well as TPP. If Obama is unable to obtain fast track, it's quite possible that TPP will collapse, since the other nations involved will be unwilling to make their best offers to US negotiators unable to guarantee that politicians won't try to alter the "final" text of the agreement.
The same applies to TTIP. If Obama fails to secure Trade Promotion Authority, all of the US offers to the EU will be provisional, since the US politicians will have the power to throw out any element of the TTIP text that they don't like, regardless of what the negotiators agreed.
Gaining fast track is just one major hurdle that TTIP must overcome. Even more serious from a European viewpoint is the fact that the more that the public finds out about TTIP, the less people like it. That's shown by the fact that the self-organised stand-in for the European Citizens Initiative has now collected an astonishing 1.7 million signatures, with plenty of time to reach 2 or even 3 million before the nominal cut-off date of October 2015. And if you think that filling in a few boxes on a Web page doesn't mean much, consider that recently tens of thousands of people took to the streets across Europe in hundreds of protests against TTIP, in scenes strongly reminiscent of the ACTA demonstrations.
The European Commission remains completely at a loss how to handle this swelling tide of discontent. Although the commissioner for trade, Cecilia Malmström, is undoubtedly far more transparent than her predecessor, that's not saying much when you consider it was Karel de Gucht, the man who almost single-handedly destroyed ACTA by his arrogant attitude and high-handed actions. Her repeated claims that she won't agree to anything that might lower standards or harm the European public have been rather undermined by an important recent leak obtained by Corporate Europe Observatory:
According to a leaked European Commission proposal in the ongoing EU-US Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations, EU member state legislative initiatives will have to be vetted for potential impacts on private business interests.
Here's how it will work:
The “regulatory exchange” proposal will force laws drafted by democratically-elected politicians through an extensive screening process. This process will occur throughout the 78 [EU and US] States, not just in Brussels and Washington DC. Laws will be evaluated on whether or not they are compatible with the economic interests of major companies. Responsibility for this screening will lie with the 'Regulatory cooperation body, a permanent, undemocratic, and unaccountable conclave of European and American technocrats.
This is particularly troubling:
“What’s perhaps most scary about this proposal is its potential application to existing regulation – not just paralyzing future legislation but sending us backward,” says David Azoulay at the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL). “Not only will it extend an outrageously burdensome process on future legislation, but any current legislation in the public interest that doesn’t sit well with trade interests on either side of the Atlantic could be subjected to the same process to make it conform to corporate interests.”
The leak confirms that regulatory co-operation will undermine key institutions and processes that lie at the heart of European society. That's significant, because when it's put together with the other deeply problematic aspect of the proposed trade agreement, ISDS, it reveals the whole TTIP project to be a concerted and thoroughgoing attack on democracy itself, with corporates and international investors as the main beneficiaries.
Despite the massive rejection of ISDS in the European Commission's public consultation, Malmström seems hell-bent on ploughing ahead with it, albeit in some lightly re-worked and re-branded form. But the problem is not the details, but the basic idea - that of giving foreign investors special courts that only they can use to make huge claims against sovereign nations. The only solution is to get rid of ISDS completely. If Malmström stubbornly refuses to do that, it seems clear that TTIP will fall, just as ACTA did.