While the European Commission, Barack Obama and Angela Merkel all insist the transatlantic trade negotiations can be concluded by the end of the year, François Hollande has said he is ready to throw in the towel. EURACTIV France reports.
In yet another setback for the talks between the EU and the US over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) on Tuesday (30 August), French President Hollande said there would be no deal between the two trading blocs by the end of this year.
Speaking at the opening of the Ambassadors’ Week in Paris, Hollande said, “The negotiations are deadlocked, our positions have not been respected and the imbalance is clear. It is better to make this clear assessment than to prolong a discussion which, as things are, has no chance of becoming a success.”
This intervention came shortly after the French Secretary of State for Foreign Trade Matthias Fekl had called for the negotiations to be stopped.
— Matthias Fekl (@MatthiasFekl) August 30, 2016
For the French government’s representative, the talks favour the Americans, and the EU has gained “nothing, or mere crumbs”.
A chronic lack of transparency, the treatment of multinationals, the defence of agricultural production and access to American public markets are all areas where Fekl feels the EU has failed to make any inroads into the American positions. He also said relations between the EU and the United States were simply “not good enough”.
But the Commission does not see the problem. The executive’s spokesman Margaritis Schinas said the EU did not believe the 28 heads of state “lack influence” in the talks.
The TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) negotiations on the began in 2013 and were scheduled to be signed off in 2015, creating a transatlantic free trade zone with simplified regulations and common standards.
But the project has been severely criticised by anti-globalisation and environmental NGOs and the public at large, over fears it would lower health, social and environmental standards to benefit big business to the detriment of democracy.
In Luxembourg, ex-Commissioner for Justice Viviane Reding created a stir by asking Prime Minister Xavier Bettel to call for an end to the negotiations.
“After three years of talks, we must accept that it is just not going to work. In Europe, our documents are public and our markets are open. In the United States, the opposite is true. Despite intense efforts on the part of the European negotiators, the United States remains firmly opposed to the publication of the negotiation texts, the opening of their public markets, telecommunications or transport, to the replacement of ISDS (the investor-state dispute settlement mechanism) with a public court, to our proposals on food security and environmental protection and even to the recognition of our protected geographical indications, to cite but a few of the major blockages,” she said.
France remains sceptical
The current French coolness towards TTIP is nothing new. As early as October 2015, Paris had called for the deal to be called off if no progress was made.
Hollande even reaffirmed this position in May. “Knowing what stage the international negotiations are at at this stage, France would say no,” he said.
The decision to leave the negotiating table has been broadly welcomed by politicians across France. Ex-of Industrial Renewal Arnaud Montebourg and co-founder of the Left Front Jean-Luc Mélenchon both told the press that abandoning TTIP would be a positive step for France. Even the National Front admitted that it was “good news”, albeit a “publicity stunt”.
In response to Paris’ announced withdrawal from the talks, European Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström said that the EU’s objective was still “to conclude [the negotiations] before the end of Obama’s mandate”. She insisted that the negotiations had not failed.
But the French government’s position provides a stark contrast to the optimism shown by the European executive. On Monday (29 August) a Commission spokesman tried to reassure journalists that “the European Commission is making constant progress in the ongoing negotiations”.
On Tuesday, the executive reiterated this position, adding that the Commission would press on with the talks because it had received a mandate from the member states to do so. The lead US negotiator Michael Froman made similar comments to Der Spiegel at the weekend.
Despite the statement of Germany’s Vice-Chancellor, Sigmar Gabriel, that the talks with the US had “failed”, Berlin’s official position is still to support TTIP. Chancellor Angela Merkel pushed Gabriel back into line with assurances that the Commission’s negotiation mandate still had the support of the German government.
Paris’ decision to end the talks may not be irreversible. A French diplomat said that the government would “never say never” and that it would be willing to reconsider the agreement “if the Americans made a full U-turn on their position”. This is a view shared by Fekl, who said the negotiations should be restarted “on a good basis”.
“It is possible to reach agreements, we proved this with the COP 21,” Hollande said, indicating that although France has one foot out of the door, it has not yet entirely left the room.