The era of monolithic trade agreements is over?

Tuesday EU trade commissioner Karel de Gucht will travel to Washington to discuss the possibilities to start negotiations on an EU – US trade agreement. The industry already dreams of setting a gold standard in areas such as intellectual property protection. Does that sound familiar? Yes, it does. It sounds like ACTA, the agreement overwhelmingly voted down last July in the European Parliament.

ACTA was, in almost all aspects, a drama, out of touch with our societies. In a series of posts on this blog, I will give some thoughts on how to do things better. Today: the era of monolithic trade agreements is over?

Rewriting our laws in secrecy

On average, the trade tariffs between the EU and the US are already low (under 3%). To enlarge trade, progress will have to come from the tackling of non-tariff barriers. The EU commission calls them behind the border regulatory restrictions. Such behind the border regulatory restrictions are, in plain words, our laws. We will have to rewrite our laws to enlarge trade with the US.

There will be tough choices to make. As Reuters explains, a “trade deal could be a lot for Europe to swallow”: “Can Europeans, who have balked for years at many U.S. food imports, accept a free trade agreement with the United States that opens the door for imports of genetically modified crops and chickens cleaned with chlorine?” See also Glyn Moody, After ACTA: Trans-Atlantic Partnership Agreement.

The point I want to make here, is that the trade negotiators will discuss changing our laws behind closed doors. Only company lobbyists and some members of parliaments will have access to the negotiation texts. The outcome will be one big package, say 1000 pages, to be voted in one vote, yes or no. The EU is in a dire state, the commission desperately wants a success. The pressure on the European Parliament to vote yes will be huge. What will happen will not be a feast of democracy.

A deep integration of our laws, negotiated in secrecy, with only access to some, voted in once, is not compatible with democracy – even if the final vote is an open parliamentary vote.

We can do better. On some issues, the EU and US will be able to reach agreement rather easily. There is no need for secrecy here. Negotiate and conclude a light agreement. This can be done without delay.

On other issues, agreement will be much harder to reach. As these are sensitive issues, secrecy is unacceptable here. The negotiators will have to discuss these issues in the open. They can then present them to parliaments in the smallest possible balanced chunks. This will provide a much higher legitimacy. The Lisbon Treaty makes this possible. Democracy necessitates that the era of monolithic trade agreements is over.

Tomorrow, the second blog, on expropriation trolls.

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