Following the European Council last month, where EU leaders urged the European Commission to step up communications efforts in support of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the executive has passed the ball back to the member states.
“No matter how much effort the Commission makes in its communications exercises, unless the member states themselves get actively involved in the exercise, we are not really going to change the nature of the debate,” said the EU’s chief TTIP negotiator Ignacio Garcia Bercero, in an exclusive interview with EURACTIV.
EU leaders consider TTIP one way to lift the ailing EU economy, together with the implementation of structural reforms, and a big investment push through the so-called Juncker Plan.
The ninth round of negotiations to take place next week in New York (20-24 April) will delve once again into the difficult chapter of regulatory cooperation, which is supposed to make EU and US regulations more compatible, so that companies are less burdened by red tape in their cross-border transactions. That is expected to reduce costs over time, and deliver greater consumer choices, and stronger regulatory outcomes.
But it is precisely this regulatory chapter, together with the controversial investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) clause that cause deep concern, and firm opposition, with critics saying that TTIP will drive down standards in areas such as chemicals, food standards and financial services.
Despite reassurance from the European Commission and the business community that none of the elements of the present EU regulatory system will be changed through TTIP, NGOs and activists are not persuaded.
“The debate in perceived very differently in each member state,” explains Lutz Güllner, head of communication at DG Trade. “The differences are huge in terms of intensity, issues and problems that are anticipated, but also in terms of the expected benefits.
Polarised or undecided public opinion
A recent YouGov poll conducted in seven countries earlier this month shows that public opinion is clearly polarised in Germany, with two out five Germans (43%) thinking that TTIP would be bad for their country. Only one in four said that the agreement would be good.
But most countries hold a high contingent of people who are undecided on whether to support or not TTIP. One reason for the large uncertainty in many countries may be that the negotiations are not seen as prominently as in Germany.
Güllner confirms that the most difficult debates are taking stage in Germany and Austria, and that has already prompted a new approach to communication.
“Ten years ago, when we launched trade agreements, there was no debate. People wanted to know about the macro-economic impacts and the value of the agreements. With TTIP that has changed because people are asking more questions about the real impact, they are much more defensive and they want to know about the risks and the opportunities, they don’t want the general figure but they want more and more real life examples,” Güllner continued, adding that the Commission has adapted to the debate.
However, adapting to the new public opinion ecosystem is not enough. Giving examples, explaining what the European Commission wants to get out of the negotiations and what that means for different constituencies, business, the public at large and consumers is not enough. Being active on social media and organise townhall meetings across Europe to explain and engage is not enough.
“It is not the Commission alone. We have a common mandate, a common purpose and common objectives,” insisted Güllner, saying that EU member states cannot expect Brussels to come up with a miracle cure.
Defending the Commission’s mammoth work, Bercero argued that many officials from his team had been in Germany and Austria, two of the countries with the most divided public opinion. “But unless you have a real, active involvement from member states’ political authorities, from business, from those who are interested in this agreement succeeding, it is not really going to work.”
At the moment, coordination between the EU and member states is happening informally, with the setting up of a common platform, where they exchange best practices. But no clear structure or coordination has been organised.
“It really depends on the national and individual situation within each member state,” said Güllner.
In Germany, the Commission has set up a series of citizens’ dialogues across the country, together with a coalition of businesses, trade unions and under the patronage of the Europa Union, an independent pro-European NGO. Six or seven dialogues have happened so far, with attendance estimated at up to 500 people, who come with questions and concerns. “This is very resource-intense, but it is something that we have committed to do,” he said.
Has that changed the mood? It’s difficult to say. “I believe the intensity of the debate has calmed down a bit, and is focusing on substantial points, rather than the project itself,” commented Bercero.