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.
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.
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.
The European Commission told EurActiv: “Ensuring the highest degree of transparency is important, and a goal to which the Commission is fully committed. We appreciate the Ombudsman's acknowledgement of the steps we've already taken to make these negotiations the most transparent ever, and her practical suggestions to improve further access to information about TTIP, which we'll study closely.
“The Commission has an open-door policy. We are ready to engage with all stakeholders. We do not give privileged access to documents or information to certain stakeholders, organisations or individuals. However, demand to meet us and discuss TTIP has so far been greater from business than from other groups. This is one of the reasons why we have created a special advisory group, bringing together experts from different industries, the trade union movement, consumer associations and environmental NGOs to bring other perspectives into the negotiations.
“And finally, the Commission has taken unprecedented steps to provide detailed information about these negotiations and to involve the broader public.”
The Council could not comment at this time.
Bernd Lange, the German Socialist Chair of the European Parliament's Committee on International Trade said, "The European Parliament has for a long time called for more transparency in the TTIP talks, including the publication of the negotiating mandate. Only transparency can ensure a fact-based debate, which is what we need in Europe. I support Ombudsman O'Reilly's initiatives, which are pushing for the same goal."
Ska Keller, vice-chair for The Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament, told EurActiv: "If TTIP would come into force it would mean massive changes for the lives of the people living in the EU. Our democratic rights of determining our very own consumer, social and environmental standards would be under threat and our democratic judiciary system would erode with Investors being enabled to sue the state in front of private arbitrators.
“People should know what the Commission negotiates on their behalf,” Keller went on. “Even I, as democratically elected representative, do not have access to the negotiation documents, although I need to scrutinise them in order to fulfill my responsibilities as a parliamentarian. The call of the Ombudsman substantiates our demands for more transparency and we Greens fully support her in her investigations.”