BRUSSELS (AFP) - Opponents to a controversial trade pact between the EU and the United States passed a key threshold on Thursday securing one million signatures on a petition they hope will force Brussels to abandon the deal.
European and US negotiators have been in talks for more than a year to create the world's biggest free-trade and investment agreement, the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).
The ambitious pact would create a single market of one billion consumers spanning half the globe, harmonising regulations and removing tariffs from Alaska to the Baltics.
But the talks, which begin a seventh round in February, have drawn bitter criticism on an array of concerns including whether it will override local laws, and sharp accusations that negotiations take place in secret to the benefit of corporate interests.
The Stop TTIP coalition, made up of NGOs and activists, said it had reached one million signatories as part of a so-called European Citizens' Initiative asking the EU to drop the project along with a similar deal with Canada.
"Stop TTIP has collected more than a million signatures in record time," said John Hilary, member of the coalition, which brings together 320 groups from 24 member states.
- "This is especially embarrassing for the European Commission as it has tried repeatedly to block any citizens' involvement in the way these treaties are being negotiated and what the outcome should be," he said.
Under EU rules, an initiative of more than one million signatures forces the European Commission to review a policy and hold a hearing in the European Parliament.
But already in September the European Commission preemptively refused the initiative, saying the stated purpose to stop an ongoing negotiation was legally invalid.
The coalition has challenged that decision in the European Court of Justice.
New European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has made the TTIP a central part of his five-year agenda, though he has also pledged to address criticism of the project.
Europe's trade commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem, who took office like Juncker a month ago, has promised to implicate herself fully in TTIP with a special focus on addressing fears and concerns.
During a visit to Brussels on Tuesday, US Secretary of State John Kerry said TTIP was victim of "a misunderstanding that we need to address and will address in the coming months".
"This is an agreement that seeks to raise practices to the highest level not the lowest," he said.
In attempt to revive the talks that have gotten bogged down over a number of issues including use of antibiotics and genetically modified organisms in food products, the EU's Malmstroem will travel to Washington next week to meet US trade representative Michael Froman.
"TTIP is an opportunity for the US and EU, who share common values, to work together to promote high standards around the world," Froman said last week welcoming the talks.