Cecilia Malmström this week fielded questions from French MPs on the transatlantic trade deal. Despite determined French opposition, she hopes for a breakthrough that would see the agreement signed before the end of President Obama’s mandate in 2017. EURACTIV France reports.
EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström spent Wednesday 15 April in Paris in an attempt to soften French resistance to the transatlantic trade agreement; a mission that is proving complex, if not impossible.
At Wednesday’s meeting with the European Affairs Committees of the French Parliament and Senate, the Commissioner highlighted the recent progress of the project and the positive impact it would have on the European economy. “It is the biggest agreement we have ever entered into, it could offer some important opportunities for medical equipment, medicines and French chemical products for example,” the Commissioner promised, with the added assurance that “no agreement will be signed that would lower the standards currently in place.”
Arguing that European needs economic growth to pull it out of the crisis, the Swedish Commissioner pressed home the message that the EU should use all means to achieve this, including trade. She also hoped to sway the MPs with the geopolitical argument that Europe was losing clout in the new world order, and that “by strengthening ties with our commercial partners, we would gain influence”.
Too short a timescale?
The sceptical French MPs expressed their concern over the timetabling of the trade negotiations.
Cecilia Malmström said there were two remaining rounds of negotiations before the summer, the first of which will take place next week. “We hope to conclude the most technical discussions before the summer so we can start discussing the more political part in September,” she said.
But the timescale has sent a ripple of unease through the benches of the parliament. Danielle Auroi, the President of the European Affairs Committee, said “This urgency does not place Europe in a strong position.” And she was not the only one to reveal her concern over the Commission’s haste. “We will not sign the agreement by Christmas, but it would be good to do it before the departure of President Obama, otherwise the delay would be significant,” the Trade Commissioner said. Barack Obama leaves the Whitehouse in early 2017.
Several MPs, mainly from leftist parties, took advantage of the Commissioner’s presence to demonstrate their opposition to the trade and investment partnership in principle, and particularly the lack of transparency in the negotiations. “I recently spoke to French beetroot farmers, who are very worried by certain parts of the agreement. But I am afraid that as members of parliament, we will quite simply not have the means to control and to be up to date with what is happening [in the negotiations],” said Estelle Grelier, a Socialist Party MP.
Fears over European budget
Green MP André Gattolin asked the Commission to examine the cost of the agreement to the European member states, in light of the reduced customs duties between the EU and the United States.
“As 80% of the EU’s resources come from the member states’ contributions, this is a problem. Reducing customs duty will impact on budgets. Has this reduction been analysed? I would like the Commission to give precise figures,” the MP said.
The Commissioner offered the assurance that the economic returns for the states would outweigh the lost revenue, but could not give exact numbers.
French MPs warn of defiance
MP Seybah Dagoma pointed out that the European Affairs Committee of the French Parliament had overwhelmingly rejected the introduction of arbitration clauses into the free trade agreement with Canada, but that the government had not followed suit. “But if TTIP turns out to be a mixed agreement, the members of parliament will be consulted,” she said. If the trade deal had to be ratified by the EU’s national parliaments, its fate would quickly be sealed. Such is the opposition it faces from politicians and the public.
Therein lies the conflict at the heart of these negotiations. The Commissioner stressed several times that “the Commission had received a negotiation mandate from the member states”. Paris, along with the other 27 EU capitals, gave the green light to this agreement, but this fact is clearly not enough to win over the French parliamentarians, much less the electorate. The president of the European Affairs Committee rounded up the meeting by thanking Cecilia Malmström, whilst indicating her doubts as to the number of MPs whose opinion the Commissioner had managed to alter.
André Gattolin summed up the problem: “TTIP as it stands is not an exercise in EU democracy, and it is a hard sell for an MP.”