Commission official: The EU is not going to change its food legislation because of TTIP

Ignacio Garcia Bercero

The EU is not going to change its food safety legislation under the negotiation for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which means that GMOs can be marketed in the EU only once they have been authorised, and beef from the USA would be marketable in Europe only if it is hormone free, Ignacio Garcia Bercero of the European Commission told EURACTIV Czech Republic.

Ignacio Garcia Bercero is a Director in DG Trade of the European Commission. Since 2012, he has been responsible for overseeing EC activities in the fields of Neighbouring Countries, US and Canada as well as being the Chief Negotiator for the EU- India FTA. He coordinated the work of the EU-US High Level Working Group on Growth and Jobs, which recommended the launch of TTIP negotiations.

He was speaking to EURACTIV Czech Republic’s Publisher Jan Vitásek

In the recent interview for EURACTIV, one of the US consultants mentioned that the TTIP attracts much more attention in the EU than in the USA. How would you explain such a situation?

It is very interesting. In the United States, trade policy is also very controversial, maybe even more than in the European Union. But public attention is focused mostly on negotiations in the Pacific. The Trans Pacific Partnership stirred much more controversy than the agreement with the European Union.

I guess the main reason is that the EU and the USA share the same values, and both adhere to high standards of environmental protection. It may vary from one sector to another, but in terms of our labour or environment policies we are much closer to each other than to countries in Asia. Things that are controversial in trade agreements with those countries are not really there in case of the agreement with the EU.

You talk about the United States, but in the EU, the public is is much more concerned.

It is quite paradoxical. Our negotiations with Japan, Vietnam, or India have attracted very little public attention whereas negotiations with the USA immediately raised all concerns and anxieties that are not present in other cases.

Maybe it has simply to do with the fact that our relations with the USA have always been very emotional. They usually attract much more attention than any other type of relationships and when we negotiate a trade agreement, inevitably, there is also a much greater degree of public attention than in other trade negotiations.

So we are actually having a public debate on a trade agreement – a thing we have never had in any other case. It is a challenge, but that is what the democracy is about.

TTIP negotiations have been heavily criticised for being non-transparent. In the end, after it had been leaked and circulated freely for some time, the European mandate was made public in September. Do you believe that the public can now be assured that negotiations will not be going on behind their back?

Let us take a look on the whole transparency issue surrounding TTIP. You mentioned the mandate. I think this is the first time in any trade negotiations or indeed in any negotiation in the EU that we have made a negotiating mandate public. The European Commission has called for that for at least a year, but it took one year for the member states to agree upon it. In my view, it is an overdue step.

When you go to our website, you will also find position papers on practically every area of negotiation. They all explain in quite a level of detail what the EU wants to achieve in the different areas. You will find very detailed papers on chemicals, cars, medical devices, etc. Such an amount of information has never been published in any trade negotiation before.

When we talk about our communication with the European Parliament and the member states, all the documents that we sent to the USA are shared first with the member states and the European Parliament. We also meet MEPs before and after each negotiating round to debrief them on how the negotiations are progressing. We have also recently asserted (the need) to make a public report about what has been discussed in the different negotiating rounds.

That being said, we have already done much more transparency in this negotiation than in any other trade negotiation where the EU has been engaged.

Do you believe it is going to be sufficient?

As negotiations with the US attract much more public attention, it is obvious that much more would need to be done, and [Trade] Commissioner [Cecilia] Malmström already indicated in her hearing before the European Parliament that she wanted to consider additional steps.

For instance, she mentioned that currently only limited number of the members of the European Parliament had access to our negotiating documents. She said that provided assistance could be established to prevent breaches of confidentiality she would find it logical that all the members of the European Parliament should be able to have access to EU negotiation documents.

So you are not afraid that this agreement would follow the fate of ACTA? I understand it is incomparable – ACTA was not a trade agreement, but it was also negotiated behind closed doors. When it got to the European Parliament, all the controversial issues which were not properly explained reappeared, and finally brought the negotiations down.

From my point of view, we are taking all the necessary steps to avoid what happened in the case of ACTA. But in any case, let us bear in mind that we are still very far from the moment when this agreement would need to be ratified. We are still in the middle of negotiating process, we still have a lot of work to be done.

Once the agreement is concluded it will become public. It will be a way before it goes to the Parliament for ratification. You can see that in case of EU-Canada agreement, the text is now accessible on our website, it can be consulted by anyone and it is the agreement which has still not even been submitted to legal revision. After it is submitted to legal revision, it would need to be translated, and it would be more than a year before it goes for consideration to the European Parliament.

Let us now focus on major issues that are inside the agreement. What issues do you see as the most controversial?

I am not sure if most controversial is the right word. In comparison to any other previous trade negotiations, what is very new about it is that we are not tackling only traditional trade obstacles like tariffs, services, or public procurements. We are also trying to see how we can have a better interaction between the European and American regulatory regimes.

We have identified a number of areas where it is possible to save unnecessary duplication of regulatory costs. And that is difficult. It is not a classical issue that would be normally tackled in trade negotiations. We are talking about the things such as equivalency of car safety regulations, duplication of inspections on pharmaceuticals, or medical devices.

On both sides, you need to involve regulators which are responsible for those regulations, go through the issues, look into the evidence and finally come to a conclusion that some regulatory savings are possible without compromising the objectives of the regulation.

It is complex, but I am sure it would be very productive because at the end of the day it will also determine how economically significant this agreement would be. Tariffs matter but sometimes these regulatory duplications matter much more than tariffs. Cars are a very good example. The American tariff on cars is 2.5 % which is not too big, but the cost of adapting a European car model so that it can be sold in the USA can be about 20 or 25%, and in many cases it is simply a deterrent against exporting into the USA.

As I understand it, mutual recognition of each other’s approval procedures would be ideal. Can it be achieved?

You can never get to the ideal, because you would always find a number of areas in which the regulations are different and the difference cannot be reconciled. There are always going to be some adaptations that will be necessary to sell European cars in the USA and vice versa.

But the more regulations which can be considered to be equivalent, and the more other regulations where we can actually work together, (for instance at the UNECE in Geneva in order to develop regulations that apply across, and hopefully also beyond the Atlantic) we can actually identify, the more we would be able to simplify car exports to each other’s markets.

Sometimes there are different perspectives from which the European Union and the United States approach the regulation of their markets. While the EU allows substances that have proven not to have adverse effects on consumer health, the US authorities can ban only such substances that prove to be harmful. Let us take as an example agricultural products. If TTIP brings acceptance of each other’s regulatory practices, would it not  mean that it could bring GMOs and other controversial food products onto our plates?

In terms of food safety, we have been 100 % clear. We are not going to change our food safety legislation under this negotiation. That means that GMOs can be marketed in the EU, only once they have been authorised. Also, the beef from the United States would be marketable in Europe only if it is hormone free. If it has been treated with hormones, it would be prohibited for sale in the EU. It was the case before and will continue to be the case after the TTIP. We are not going to accept any changes of our food safety legislation and the US know that perfectly well.

But the issue is sensitive also in the US. They are not going to accept changes to their food safety legislation either. For example, in case of Listerine, the US have applied standards which are much stronger than those which are applied in the EU. Yes, there is a problem to sell certain cheeses in the United States and it will continue to be a problem in the future.

How can trade in food products be simplified without compromising food safety standards on both sides of Atlantic?

Having differences in our food safety legislation doesn’t mean that it is not possible to facilitate trade for agricultural products. Trade is not always hindered by the level of protection, but rather by red tape.

If you want to sell certain European product on the US market, you need to go through an import application procedure that could take up to 10 years because of the burdens of the data that you need to provide, and the fact that inspections that you have done with one member state are not acceptable in other member states. This is an extremely complex procedure.

One of the things that we believe should be possible in this agreement is simplifying the import application procedure for food products. Let us take an example of inspection: When there is a problem with food exported from the US to Europe, we often accept it and we do not need to inspect further their food manufacturing facility. But the USA often requires inspections of European food manufacturing facilities. There are a lot of things that will not affect the level of consumer protection, but rather ensure that we have less complicated procedures.

In the face of Ukraine-Russian crisis, what are the prospects that bans on export of gas and oil will be removed by the United States?

In talks with our US partners, we have been raising this issue a way before the Ukraine crisis. We considered that in an ambitious agreement like TTIP, the issue of trade and investment in energy and raw materials is of critical importance.  And we feel that having a secure access to the US energy resources should be an important component of TTIP.

It is perhaps a little bit simpler in the case of gas than of oil, because in gas, the current US legislation already states that once a free trade agreement has been concluded licensing restrictions will no longer apply.

In the case of oil, it is more complicated because the current situation is that non-refined oil is prohibited from export outside of the USA. They signed the trade agreement with Canada, but under limited conditions. It is a more difficult issue, although you might notice there has been a lot of discussion in the US Congress about the possibility of looking again into those restrictions that were adopted in a different time, and do not have the same justification today.