As long-suffering readers of this column will have noticed, the dominant theme of the discussions around TTIP so far has been the investor-state dispute settlement provisions (ISDS). We are still waiting for the European Commission's analysis of the massive response to its consultation on the subject - it will be fascinating to see how it tries to put a positive spin on the overwhelming public refusal of ISDS in TTIP.
The issue that crops up most often after ISDS is probably transparency - or rather the almost complete lack of it. Yes, it's true that there have been some token releases of documents: initial position papers in 2013, and some more in 2014; but these don't really tell us much that we didn't already know, or could guess. The main obstacle to greater openness was Karel De Gucht, the European Commissioner for Trade when TTIP was launched. As he showed time and again during the ACTA fiasco, he had little but contempt for the European public and its unconscionable desire to know what the politicians whose salaries it pays are up to in Brussels. That made his retirement at the end of last year an important opportunity to bring more openness to trade negotiations.
His successor, Cecilia Malmström, is cut from a very different cloth, as was apparent from this announcement right at the start of her tenure of De Gucht's post:
'TTIP is an immensely important agreement,' said Commissioner Malmström, 'with huge potential to create jobs and growth and to set standards. Yet, even though the TTIP talks are the most transparent and open the Commission has ever conducted, there are still a lot of doubts around what is being negotiated.'
'That's why we want to consult even more extensively on TTIP, and go even further in terms of transparency. Increased transparency will enable us to show, more clearly, what the negotiations are about and to de-mystify them. We will use this as a basis to engage further with a broad range of stakeholders and the public,' said Malmström.
The Commissioner outlined two main proposals for boosting transparency.
First, to extend access to TTIP texts to all Members of the European Parliament, beyond the currently limited group of Members of the European Parliament’s International Trade Committee.
Second, to publish texts setting out the EU's specific negotiating proposals on TTIP.
As I've discussed many times, TTIP does not have "huge potential to create jobs and growth", even under the most optimistic assumptions, but it's certainly important, so Malmström's promise of consulting "even more extensively" is extremely welcome. Indeed, I was pleasantly surprised last month to experience first-hand just how extensively she means to consult:
Whether that meeting actually happens, remains to be seen. But Malmström's two main proposals for "boosting transparency" have now been implemented. The first of them - providing access to MEPs - happened immediately. The second, publishing actual negotiating texts - happened earlier this week:
The European Commission today published a raft of texts setting out EU proposals for legal text in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) it is negotiating with the US. This is the first time the Commission has made public such proposals in bilateral trade talks and reflects its commitment to greater transparency in the negotiations.
Specifically, here's what is being made available:
The so-called 'textual proposals' published today set out the EU’s specific proposals for legal text that has been tabled in the proposed TTIP. They set out actual language and binding commitments which the EU would like to see in the parts of the agreement covering regulatory and rules issues. The eight EU textual proposals cover competition, food safety and animal and plant health, customs issues, technical barriers to trade, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), and government-to-government dispute settlement (GGDS, not to be confused with ISDS). Today, the Commission has also published TTIP position papers explaining the EU's approach on engineering, vehicles, and sustainable development, bringing the total number of position papers it has made public up to 15.
To make the online documents more accessible to the non-expert, the Commission is also publishing a 'Reader's Guide', explaining what each text means. It is also issuing a glossary of terms and acronyms, and a series of factsheets setting out in plain language what is at stake in each chapter of TTIP and what the EU's aims are in each area.
That's certainly a big step forward for transparency, and is to be welcomed. However, not everything is available yet. For example, in two areas that are likely to be of particular interesting to readers of this column - "Information and communication technology" and "Intellectual property rights" - we only have some rather thin factsheets. The first of these [.pdf] is particularly slight - just one page. Perhaps the only element of interest is the following:
In ICT, we want to:
set common principles for certifying ICT products, especially for encoding and decoding information ('cryptography' in the jargon).
But the European Commission is quick to assure us that:
The EU won’t accept lower security levels. We want common principles for assessing how products comply with regulations.
Presumably that means the EU and US will agree to use the same set of backdoors in crypto tools....
On the copyright and patent front [.pdf], it's striking that the Commission is still assuring us that TTIP is not ACTA 2.0 - evidence once more of how deep the fears run of another defeat at the hands of the European Parliament - for example:
The EU and US have detailed enforcement provisions already, whereas some other countries that planned to join ACTA didn't. So we won’t negotiate rules on things like:
internet service provider liability.
The idea that criminal penalties and ISP liability were only in ACTA because "some countries" lacked strong enforcement is ridiculous: they were there because powerful copyright lobbyies in the EU and US wanted them there. But it is nonetheless welcome to have set down here that neither will be present in TTIP.
The most recent release of TTIP documents shows two things. First, that we have started the journey towards real transparency, but by no means arrived there yet, as an important recent report from the European Ombudsman makes clear. And secondly - and perhaps most importantly - that public advocacy does work. Although it is true that the present move owes a lot to Malmström - and kudos to her for taking this step - it is also true that it would never have happened had not thousands of people demanded more openness. It demonstrates what can be achieved simply by asking in a polite but persistent manner, and encourages us to keep doing so.