Oceans & Forests Blog

Corporate capture: Europe trade talks threaten environment

Posted May. 29, 2014 / Posted by: Bill Waren

On Friday, May 23, the United States and the European Union concluded weeklong negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (also called the Trans Atlantic Free Trade Agreement). This fifth negotiating round was held behind closed doors in the Washington, D.C. area. TAFTA negotiating documents were classified as government secrets, even as several hundred corporate lobbyists who are “cleared advisors” to the U.S. Trade Representative were granted privileged access.

Tariff issues are a secondary matter in these talks. Generally speaking, tariffs on transatlantic trade in goods are low. Negotiators, therefore, focused last week -- as they will throughout the course of U.S.-EU talks -- on lowering regulatory “barriers” to transatlantic trade and investment. Such “barriers” include environmental and public health protections -- such as those related to climate change, food safety, genetically-engineered products and toxic chemicals, among many others.

Here are a few of the threats posed by TAFTA to sensible regulatory protections for the environment, public health and the climate that Friends of the Earth raised last week in discussions with negotiators, participants at “stakeholder events,” and the press.

Fossil fuel exports. The boom in oil, coal, and liquefied natural gas exports is fueling climate change, but international trade agreements encourage international commerce in these carbon-polluting  products. Friends of the Earth believes that TAFTA negotiators should steer a different course: one that creates enough policy space for bold governmental action to curb fossil fuel exports.

For example, Friends of the Earth condemned statements in congressional testimony by Michael Froman, the U.S. Trade Representative, challenging an EU fuel quality directive that would limit shipments to Europe of dirty Canadian tar sands oil, including that which would flow through pipelines like the proposed Keystone XL system for export from U.S. ports.

On Monday, May 19,   as TAFTA negotiations kicked off, a leaked draft negotiating text for the E.U. on energy issues was published online. An analysis of the leaked text by the European NGO, Power Shift, and Sierra Club shows that the draft European proposal for TAFTA energy provisions would “expand fossil fuel exports from the U.S. to the EU.”

“This proposal exposes the contradiction of policy makers who promise to do everything they can to act on climate and then push a trade and investment agreements that would devastate our climate,” said Peter Fuchs, executive director of PowerShift.

Investment tribunals. U.S. Trade Representative Froman is also pushing for an investment chapter in TAFTA that would allow firms to sue governments for millions or billions in money damages if environmental or public health regulations interfere with expected future profits. This would discourage government action, for just a few examples, restricting oil and gas drilling, imposing pollution controls, or limiting the use of hydraulic fracturing.

Toxic chemicals. TAFTA poses risks to the EU’s health-protective approach to chemical regulation, called REACH. If the American Chemistry Council gets its way, the TAFTA process could “harmonize down” European chemical regulations so that they approach low federal standards in the U.S., namely the failed Toxic Substances Control Act. In coming years, this could also prevent comprehensive reform of federal chemicals regulation, resulting in weaker rules for chemicals associated with breast cancer, autism and infertility. More immediately, it would undercut more effective toxic chemical regulation currently on the books in California and other states.

Genetically engineered products. TAFTA could open the door for U.S. exports of genetically engineered goods into Europe, where market access is currently restricted -- or at least labeling is required -- because of safety concerns. This could threaten ecosystems, public health and the livelihoods of small farmers, among other adverse consequences.

Gene patents. Friends of the Earth fears that U.S. negotiators will propose, as they have in Trans Pacific Partnership trade negotiations, that intellectual property provisions cover and protect patents on plants, animals and other life forms. We support a ban on gene patenting that covers human genes and all the genes that occur naturally on the planet. By giving corporations monopolies over the use of parts of the genetic code that have evolved naturally and are part of our common natural and human heritage, gene patents are inherently dangerous and unfair

Government procurement. Friends of the Earth believes that green purchasing preferences should not be limited by TAFTA government procurement rules that might be based almost exclusively on product cost and performance. For example, a TAFTA procurement chapter should allow governments to impose procurement rules that require products to be made with recycled or organic materials or meet energy efficiency standards. And, governments should be able to discriminate against products made with environmentally destructive methods. Trade agreement prohibitions on “buy local” purchasing policies should not undercut government policies intended to encourage the growth of green industries, such as solar and other renewable energy ventures. Similarly, school lunch programs that favor healthy food produced by local farmers, rather than giant agribusiness, should not be endangered.

Food safety. Industry lobbyists have called for TAFTA provisions that would make it much easier to challenge safeguards related to food safety and animal health. European firms are seeking to relax U.S. regulatory safeguards related to mad cow disease. But U.S. agri-business has even more ambitious plans to lower food safety standards in Europe, seeking to deregulate EU restrictions on imports of beef treated with growth hormones, chicken washed in chlorine and meat produced with growth stimulants, among others.

Earlier this year, Friends of the Earth and 28 other organizations wrote a letter to Trade Representative Froman expressing concern “over possible measures in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership that could have sweeping ramifications for how meat is produced in the United States and EU in coming decades… Rather than an opportunity to raise standards that protect public health and the environment, the meat and feed industries on both sides of the Atlantic are seeking to proliferate destructive practices in the animal agriculture industry.”

In order to appear responsive to an outraged European public and press, both U.S. and EU officials have made broad and artfully disingenuous statements that might sound like support for at least some existing food safety measures in Europe. The Chief U.S. negotiator Dan Mullaney went so far as to tell the press that “The United States has no intention of forcing Europeans to eat anything a European does not want to eat”  -- a statement totally at odds with USTR’s recent public comments, including Mullaney’s own wisecrack at last week's meeting belittling European concerns about “bleached chicken.”.

Even if a few EU food safety regulations, such as restrictions on hormone-treated beef, are technically “reserved” (or grandfathered) in a final TTIP agreement and stay on the books, they could prove difficult to interpret and enforce, and might be impossible to update. These rules could be required to meet tough regulatory review standards proposed by the United States and the U.S.-EU High Level Working Group. Interpretations and enforcement actions are generally regarded as “measures” covered by trade agreements. They could be subject to review under standards that ignore “the precautionary principle” as it is now applied in Europe. They could be required to meet restrictive TAFTA standards related to sanitary measures, technical barriers, regulatory coherence, cost-benefit analysis and so forth that have been proposed by the U.S. and the HLWG.

In any case, how can the public be assured that the U.S. has not “out-lawyered” EU negotiators on this and other technical issues in the TAFTA text on food safety if the text is a secret?

End the secrecy and the corporate capture of the TAFTA negotiating process. The U.S and the EU should release the negotiating text of TAFTA as it develops after each round of negotiations. In that way, the public, in the United States and Europe, could make an informed judgment. On Monday, May 19, as TAFTA negotiations got underway, Friends of the Earth Europe -- on behalf of 257 organizations around the globe -- released a joint civil society call for this veil of secrecy over the talks to be lifted. Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth U.S., reasonably asked: “Why keep these negotiations secret? Why do corporate lobbyists have privileged access to negotiators and text and not the public?”

ENDNOTE: Special thanks to Ted Majdos, Adam Russel, and Kate Colwell for photos of the fifth round of TAFTA negotiations.

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