The European Ombudsman today (31 July) opened two investigations into the EU Council and Commission over a lack of transparency around the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

Emily O’Reilly investigates complaints about maladministration in the EU institutions. She called on both Council and Commission to publish EU negotiating directives related to the EU-US trade deal, and take measures to ensure timely public access to TTIP documents, and stakeholder meetings. 

It is a blow to the Commission, which has regularly protested that the talks are the most open ever held. MEPs, pressure groups, unions and other organisations have said that they are not transparent enough.

Acting after complaints from civil society organisations, O’Reilly wrote to both institutions. She said accusations had been made about important documents being kept secret, delays, and the “alleged granting of privileged access to TTIP documents to certain stakeholders”.

Anti-TTIP campaigners have claimed the Commission leaks TTIP texts to big business and corporate lobbyists.

O’Reilly said, “Given the significant public interest and the potential impact of TTIP on the lives of citizens, I am urging both these EU institutions to step up their proactive transparency policy."

The ombudsman is not calling for total transparency. “I agree that not all negotiating documents can be published at this stage, there needs to be room to negotiate,” she said.

She called on national governments in the Council to publish the TTIP negotiating mandate empowering the Commission to talk to the US. While this is officially secret, it is in fact easily available on the internet.

The 17-page document  explains the nature and scope of the TTIP, a preamble and general principles, objectives, provisions about market access, regulatory issues and non-tariff barriers, and rules, the institutional framework and final provisions.

Trade Commissioner Karel de Gucht said recently that he thinks the mandate should also be made public. But member states have so far been unmoved.

'Considerable effort'

O'Reilly recognised that the EU institutions have made a “considerable effort” to promote transparency and public participation concerning TTIP.

The European Commission publishes papers about TTIP on a website and holds media briefings on the talks. It also provides more information about the negotiating process with the European Parliament than required under the Lisbon Treaty.

Members of the Parliament’s TTIP steering committee do have access to additional documents in special reading rooms. This was a concession won from the US, which does not want its negotiating documents to be made public.The reading room texts are consolidated versions of the EU and US positions, rather than the US originals.

While the ombudsman, part of an independent body, cannot force EU institutions to be more transparent, she can apply pressure on them by suggesting recommendations. She has asked the Council and Commission to respond to her recommendations by 30 September and 31 October respectively.

O'Reilly wants the Commission to:

  • publish documents already requested by the public on their website
  • establish a public register of TTIP documents
  • invite business groups which have submitted documents to the Commission to make non-confidential versions public
  • publish an online list of the stakeholders the Commission meets with regard to TTIP

If those recommendations are ignored, the ombudsman can close the investigation with a damning report, which would further increase the political pressure. She will first try to find a “friendly solution” by encouraging a mutually beneficial compromise between complainants and institutions.

The ongoing debate over TTIP has been heated. The Commission was swamped last week by 150,000 replies to a TTIP consultation on investor protection. And earlier this month, an EU court ruling opened the door to more TTIP documents being made public.

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Negotiations between the US and the EU on TTIP started in July 2013. If successful, the trade deal would cover more than 40% of global GDP and account for large shares of world trade and foreign direct investment. The EU-US trade relationship is already the biggest in the world.