The minister in charge of foreign trade, Nicole Bricq, admit with regret that France was the country where the mobilisation against what they call the 'transatlantic treaty', is the strongest.
A debate, which took place in the Senate on Thursday (9 January), showed bipartisan opposition to the agreement and the government found itself somewhat isolated on the topic after facing criticism from speakers from all political sides.
American public markets
The most moderate speakers underlined the potential opportunities that the opening of the US public markets would represent for French companies.
For many, a dream that is still far from becoming a reality. Indeed, because of the “Buy American Act,” the US is very hostile to the idea of having Europeans participate in tenders such as water or waste where they could be competitive.
One of the rare French senators to show optimism on the issue, the socialist Daniel Raoul, warned against the danger of a dispute settlement mechanism between investors and states, which is in the negotiation mandate of the Commission.
This mechanism gives companies the possibility to sue a state whose legislation could have a negative impact on the company’s activity. A US shale gas producer could, for example, take legal action against France because it prohibits its exploitation. That would have serious financial consequences.
“We wish that this arbitration option be removed. This provision is likely to impose unacceptable costs on states, thus undermining their ability to legislate,” the senator stressed.
The former French interior minister, Jean-Pierre Chevènement, reminded that the idea for a partnership was first and foremost an American idea, as the US wished to rebalance the trade surplus that the EU had with the country and bring back jobs to their continent.
“The companies’ interests are not always those of the states," warned a politician, who considers that the currency issue should have been settled before signing a trade agreement.
“We should have put in place a transatlantic snake in the tunnel in order to establish, softly, a real parity between the euro and the dollar. We cannot talk about free trade when the parity between euro and dollar go from one to two in ten years only.”
In his opinion, this aspect should be included in the negotiations, but the minister Bricq replied it was not on the agenda.
André Gattolin, a Green MP, also strongly opposed the partnership project, said that Europe had its own identity and should preserve it. He also put forward the impact it would have on inequality in different European countries.
“We are promised 0.5% growth but only some zones will take advantage of it like the ports of Rotterdam and Antwerp,” the MP went on to say.
“As it is, this project is bad and we saw with the NSA scandal that the dice are loaded,” he added.
Jean Bizet from the centre-right opposition, UMP, expressed concern about the food and agriculture aspects of the deal and notably the milk file, as cheese imports increase in France and milk producing regions grow anxious at the end of milk quotas in 2015.
“We may be solving the champagne war but it would not be responsible to start a Camembert war,” the senator said.
The Communist party was just as harsh a critic. Michel Gillout said that the “opacity of the negotiations represents a very bad sign ahead of the European elections.”
He also was worried that the social rights would be threatened and questioned the motivations of the authors of the various studies made to assess the consequences of the free trade agreement.
The sharpest remark came from a member of the government's socialist majority, Marie-Noëlle Lienemann. “I am very hostile to this treaty,” she said. “We are forced to note that happy globalisation did not happen! … multinational companies are in a situation that we cannot regulate,” she added.
The MP was sceptical about the growth perspectives, too. She added that the promised growth points could be reached with a recovery policy supported by large-scale work projects.
Meat, sugar, bioethanol, transport
Lienemann also expressed her concern at the impact of the 'treaty' on the French industrial sectors.
“The Commission admitted it is mainly meat, sugar, bioethanol producers, transport and metallurgy sectors that will be mostly touched. There could be substantial and prolonged adjustment costs for those sectors.”
She also questioned the agreement between the EU and Canada, as the agreement has not yet been made public.
“What is there to hide if not a huge risk for the European beef and pork production?”
A free trade agreement, she added, will bring “peanuts compared to what we’ll lose on pork, beef and car industry".
The foreign trade minister tried to play down the criticism by welcoming the democratic debate. “It is not a common practice of the Commission to involve national parliaments in the debates, but the process is evolving,” she promised, all the while avoiding answering a series of questions.
Nicole Bricq stressed that NGOs and American trade unions hoped that the free trade agreement between the two blocks would level up social and environmental issues in the USA, before admitting that the third round of negotiations had stumbled on strong divergences on regulation issues.
The disagreements between the two are related to the inclusion of financial services, opposed by the US, and on public markets access for Europeans.
The next round of negotiations are scheduled for early February, when tariff barriers will be discussed, and then a meeting at the end of February will take stock of previous rounds.
The talks should be suspended between mid-April and autumn 2014 because of the renewal of the European institutions.