When the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations between the European Union and the United Stated sputtered to a halt in 2017, IATP was among many civil society groups — including health care providers, food and farm groups, consumer advocates and privacy experts — breathing a sigh of relief. Billed by supporters as a next-generation trade agreement, TTIP instead reflected the worst features of last-generation trade deals. It was stuffed to the gills with corporate-friendly provisions that promoted intensive agriculture and limited food safety; threatened procurement programs that support farm-to-school; dictated digital rules that limited privacy protections and regulators’ authority over big tech; and mandated regulatory cooperation activities that would have laid the groundwork for harmonizing standards to the lowest common denominator.
Fast forward to today. While TTIP hasn’t been resuscitated, the EU and U.S. are engaged in a series of regulatory cooperation initiatives that bear watching and call out for far more public engagement and civil society participation.
Consumer advocates working together.
IATP is a member of the Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue (TACD), a coalition of over 75 leading European and U.S.-based organizations representing the interest of consumers. During the TTIP negotiations, we opposed using trade agreements to mandate “regulatory convergence,” “harmonization” or “mutual recognition” — all mechanisms that can lead to a race to the bottom for food safety, consumer and environmental standards. With the EU and U.S. governments now engaging in wide-ranging regulatory dialogues, the danger remains that even outside of a trade negotiation, corporate interests will predominate in a process that is difficult to access and insufficiently public.
On December 6, TACD released Recommendations on EU-US Cooperation Agenda, calling on the EU and U.S. “to get this new cooperation agenda right” and to “help consumers address the impact of climate change and address their concerns related to public health, technology, and market-place fairness.” Of greatest importance, we stated that the cooperation agenda “must remain a platform to inform and exchange good practices, not a tool to influence each other’s legislative processes or deter each other from improving protections.” The resolution calls for:
A transparent process that involves public interest groups in a meaningful way.
Cooperation on health to ensure access to safe and affordable medicines for all, including cooperation to defeat the COVID-19 pandemic and provide timely access to vaccines and other COVID-19 health technologies.
Cooperation on sustainability including consumer protections and incentives and avoiding greenwashing and deceptive messaging, while addressing at a minimum green transition financing, food production, building design and automobiles.
Cooperation on technology to promote a rights-respecting digital environment and fairer and safer markets for consumers.
These recommendations are intended to address several recently initiated cross-Atlantic regulatory talks. The centerpiece of the current regulatory cooperation dialogue is the U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council (TTC), which held its first meeting in September 2021. That initiative, initially proposed by the EU, is being coordinated on the U.S. side by the Commerce Department, with the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) and the State Department also involved coordinating several of the 10 working groups. The working groups include committees on technology standards, climate, secure supply chains and global trade challenges among other topics.
Is food and agricultural policy on the table?
Even though both EU and U.S. government participants have insisted the TTC will not be a forum for lowering standards, as Corporate Europe Observatory has detailed, corporate lobbyists pushed for the creation of the forum and remain heavily involved. The principals involved in the creation of the TTC insist that food and agriculture issues are off the table. Writing for the Council for Foreign Relations, former trade litigator and now law professor Jennifer Hillman summed up, “The highly problematic issues of agricultural subsidies and regulatory barriers to trade have been left off the agenda and the discussions appear to have been targeted to specific areas of engagement where both sides have a strong interest in a tangible outcome.”
Even with agriculture purportedly off the table and none of the TTC’s working groups specific to food or agriculture, agribusiness lobbyists haven’t been deterred from trying to insert their issues into the TTC framework. For example, at a November 29, 2021 stakeholder event organized by the European Commission, the American Seed Trade Association and its EU counterpart Euroseeds pushed for the authorization of new technologies in seeds and plant breeding, including genetic engineering. The genetically engineered seed and pesticide lobbies may have a more direct route to influence future transatlantic policy, though, than trying to shoehorn their issues into the TTC. In November, EU Commissioner for Agriculture Janusz Wojciechowski and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced a different U.S.-EU regulatory dialogue, this one specific to agriculture. As their joint press release put it it, the “transatlantic collaboration platform on agriculture” is supposed to “take on the global challenges of sustainability and climate change.” It is far more likely that this initiative is yet another attempt by Vilsack to attack European “Farm to Fork” environmental, agricultural and climate polices that could reduce pesticide use and lead to less intensive industrial meat production.
On the positive side, none of these discussions is being conducted pursuant to an enforceable free trade agreement (FTA). The Biden administration has made clear that negotiation of new FTAs is low on its priorities, and U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai has repeatedly outlined a new approach to trade policy that is “worker centric,” less destructive of the environment and supports addressing climate. While the exact elements of that new approach remain to be seen, changes that Tai negotiated in the New NAFTA (known as the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement in the U.S.) indicate a willingness to prioritize labor, environment and access to medicine concerns. A change in direction is also emerging at key U.S. agencies including the Federal Trade Commission, which recently opened an investigation into price hikes and supply chain disruptions targeting global corporations including Walmart and Amazon.
Despite these positive U.S. trends, there is cause for vigilance in tracking these cross-Atlantic dialogues. We know that previous regulatory cooperation initiatives have been a force for lowering standards even when decoupled from trade agreements. They are generally lacking in transparency and easily captured by regulated interests. Even if civil society groups are invited, they often don’t have access to the information held by regulators and corporations or the staff and other resources needed to participate on equal terms with corporate interests. Involving non-industry stakeholders in the TTC regulatory talks appears to be an afterthought at best, and it is unclear how expansive the agenda will become. As for the Vilsack-Wojciechowski agricultural “platform,” it is unclear whether this is merely a press release or an organized effort to come to agreement on policy. If the latter, consumers, environmental advocates and small-scale farmers have yet to be invited to the table, and would do well to act to expose the industrial agriculture agenda lurking behind the climate-friendly veneer.