Trump promised a new approach on trade policy that would fix past damage to working people. But what his administration and European Union officials said this week in their joint statement after European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s visit to the White House sure sounds like a revival of the status-quo, pro-corporate agenda that Trump railed against in his campaign.
It remains unclear what the joint statement ultimately will lead to. However, anyone who cares about the safety standards on which we rely for our food and medicine, the energy and climate policies needed to save our planet, or financial regulations designed to prevent banks from gambling with our money and creating another crisis should be extremely worried.
The statement’s overall tone and specific worrying buzz words reflect the agenda that had been pushed by the largest U.S. and European banks, agribusinesses and other powerful industry groups in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) talks undertaken during the previous administration. That TTIP agenda had been resoundingly rejected by civil society on both sides of the Atlantic because people in Europe and the United States refuse to allow our fundamental environmental and consumer safeguards to be rewritten behind closed doors.
The statement calls for “zero non-tariff barriers.” “Non-tariff barriers” is trade-speak for any domestic policy or regulation that can affect multinational corporations’ ability to move goods or services across borders. Many consumer, health, or environmental safeguards we rely on to protect people and the environment are considered “non-tariff barriers” by business interests. Given that, does inclusion of this clause mean that the goal of these negotiations will be zero domestic safeguards on either side of the Atlantic – such as European GMO standards or U.S. financial regulations post-crisis – that might inconvenience a multinational corporation? That would be an even more radical pro-corporate plan than what was tried (and failed) in the TTIP negotiations.
Worryingly, the statement calls for “reducing barriers” to “chemicals,” “pharmaceuticals,” and “medical products.” The U.S. chemical industry sought to use TTIP to undermine Europe’s superior Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) policy. This chemical safety regime is much more robust in protecting the public from unsafe chemicals than the broken U.S. policy.
Meanwhile, European pharmaceutical manufacturers called for the U.S. FDA to relinquish its current responsibility to independently approve the safety of medicines sold in the United States, proposing that the U.S. government automatically accept a European determination that a drug produced in Europe is safe for U.S. consumers. This language suggests that this dangerous industry wish list may be revived.
References to “a dialogue on standards in order to increase trade, reduce bureaucratic obstacles and slash costs” also sound suspiciously like a revival of the problematic and highly undemocratic “regulatory cooperation” agenda from TTIP. While cooperation among regulators is not inherently a bad idea, it IS very dangerous for such cooperation to happen in the context of trade negotiations that have explicitly prioritized reducing costs for businesses over any protection of consumers or the environment. The biggest banks, agribusiness, chemicals and pharma corporations in Europe and the U.S. have made clear what consumer and environmental protections they intend to undermine in the name of such “regulatory cooperation.”
The statement also explicitly calls for increasing exports of liquefied national gas (LNG) from the United States to Europe. This would create more market incentives for LNG companies to increase the environmentally destructive practice of “fracking” across the United States, even when many U.S. states have already or are considering banning the controversial practice altogether. Pushing for the extraction and transatlantic transport of even more fossil fuels takes both the United States and European Union in the categorically opposite direction of what is needed to transition to a low-carbon economy to address climate change.
It may be unsurprising – if tragic – that the Trump administration would pursue this policy, given its shameful withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords. But that the EU would continue to pursue this is a stark abrogation of its commitment to combat climate change.
Finally, the statement’s call for the immediate creation of an Executive Working Group to move the agenda forward raises alarm bells. What is the scope of its mandate? Will there be any mechanisms to ensure that it is democratically accountable on both sides of the Atlantic? What is the nature of the “negotiations” it is undertaking?
A revival of the TTIP agenda might make some corporate cronies happy, but it would cause tremendous harm to the rest of us on both sides of the Atlantic. And it would be a clear betrayal of Trump’s promises to fix trade policy.