US, EU to resume talks on trade pact

Opponents say MNCs will benefit at expense of public health, environmental standards

WASHINGTON • Negotiators from the United States and the European Union (EU) resume talks tomorrow on a huge transatlantic free trade area, with mistrust and public opposition standing in their way.

The 11th round of discussions, to be held in Miami, US, will address a still-substantial list of differences on key issues between the two sides, after more than two years of talks on the ambitious Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

But they come after Washington scored a major triumph two weeks ago with the the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an agreement which sets out to establish a Pacific free trade group with Japan, Canada and nine other countries.

Both groupings aim at broadly lowering trade tariffs and non-tariff barriers.

But they also aim higher, at setting what the White House calls the rules for 21st century trade and investment, with special focus on digital trade and intellectual property issues, and on harmonising regulations for global business.

Businesses hope the trade pact, creating a market of 800 million people, will deliver over US$100 billion (S$138 billion) of economic gains on both sides of the Atlantic.

But the success of the TPP talks will not necessarily make the hefty task of getting Americans and Europeans to agree on a similar project any easier.

On both sides of the ocean, most intensely in Europe, the talks have been branded a Trojan horse over a broad and secretive watering-down of important public regulations that could threaten health and environmental standards to the benefit of powerful multinational corporations.

Showing that the opposition has not weakened, the "Stop TTIP" movement has collected three million signatures in support of its effort to halt the negotiations.

Politicians in the US and Europe are also expressing misgivings, especially around the intense secrecy of the negotiations, with a top French official recently lashing out at Washington's stance.

"There has to be substantial changes in the general mindset, that is in trust, reciprocity, and access to documents," French Foreign Trade Minister Matthias Fekl said early this month, warning of a "halt, pure and simple" to the talks.

Opponents have, in particular, focused on the inclusion of an extra-national Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) mechanism in the talks, which would allow foreign investors to challenge governments via a transnational tribunal.

Critics say that could give them more power over local laws and policies, and effectively more rights than a country's citizens have. They also say ISDS is unnecessary.

A final agreement on the TTIP is targeted by the end of next year.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 18, 2015, with the headline 'US, EU to resume talks on trade pact'. Print Edition | Subscribe