Trade at Any Cost?: A report on the EU’s shady free trade agreement negotiations.

In the last couple of years, the Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) and CETA (Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement) have received a lot of media attention.

Thanks to this public visibility, civil society has been able to express its strong disapproval of the undemocratic negotiation process, which took place mainly behind closed doors, and of the negative impacts these FTAs could have on the environment and consumer safety. But despite this public outcry, the EU has kept negotiations for several other FTA, that would protect corporate interests, in the shadows.

Last week, in order to shed light on these issues, Foodwatch and Power Shift published the report Trade at Any Cost?, a study of the European Union’s FTAs with Mercosur (Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay), Mexico, Japan, Vietnam and Indonesia. These new FTAs are in different stages of negotiation and none of them has yet been finalized, but it is unfortunate nonetheless to see that “the EU has learned nothing from the protests against TTIP and CETA. Consumer protection, environmental standards and democratic principles are being sacrificed on the altar of free trade – at the expense of people in Europe and at the expense of people in the partner countries”, as underlined by Thilo Bode, executive director of Foodwatch International.

Theese “new generation” FTAs are particularly alarming as they aim to eliminate the so-called non-tariff trade barriers: going far beyond the regulation of traditional trade issues, indeed, the agreements include clauses that could have serious negative consequences for environmental and consumer protection, agriculture, nutrition, and public health. At the same time that protections are being stripped away and standards are being lowered, the proposed agreements would also make it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to tighten regulations or improve standards in the future.

The FTA with Japan (JEEPA), for example, will allow the introduction into the EU of products containing high levels of pesticide residues. Simultaneously, increasing Japan’s import quotas for foodstuffs produced in the EU, will threaten the agricultural sector in Japan, which is characterized by small-scale production (89% of farms in Japan are smaller than 3 hectares). To cite another negative example, the agreement with Indonesia includes higher quotas for imported palm oil, a product that has raised several concerns among consumers in the past. Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of palm oil, but we are all aware now of the severe issues connected to palm oil production: peatlands are burned to make space for oil palm cultivation, causing deforestation and massive CO2 emissions. The EU seems a bit schizophrenic in all of this: on the one hand it promotes the agreement and, on the other, demands sustainable palm oil cultivation.

Moreover, the agreements do not contain provisions to safeguard the European precautionary principle, a principle that “may be invoked when a phenomenon, product or process may have a dangerous effect”[1]. According to the EU legal system, the burden of proof should lie with the subject who is proposing a new product or process; but the World Trade Organization takes the opposite stance, stating that the new element should be approved until scientific proof of its harmfulness is provided.

Another worrisome aspect is the inclusion of provisions for the creation of dubious investor-state dispute settlements (ISDS). This type of parallel justice system severely undermines governments’ ability to regulate, allowing corporations to sue states for passing laws that are in the public interests and not in theirs. Additionally, an ISDS can be initiated only by foreign companies against states, and not the other way around[2]. The public overwhelmingly opposes the European Commission’s proposal to establish ISDS:  97% of 150,000 respondents to a public consultation declared that they were opposed to ISDS, and 3 million people have signed a petition objecting to the inclusion of ISDS provisions in the framework of the TTIP agreement.[3]

Slow Food demands that the European Union halt FTAs negotiations until an adequate space for transparent discussion with civil society is provided, in order to allow for the interests of citizens, which these trade deals endanger, to be taken into account. It is unacceptable that in making these free trade agreements Europe continues to ignore the protections to which we should have a right, as workers, producers, consumers and citizens.

[1] Commission of the European Communities, Communication from the Commission on the Precautionary Principle, Brussels, 2.2.2000. To learn more

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