New York Times | October 8, 2013
European officials consulted business leaders on trade pact
By Danny Hakim
LONDON — Long before trade negotiations began with the United States this summer, European officials were consulting with business leaders from both sides of the Atlantic on how to structure a free-trade pact.
Internal documents obtained by The New York Times offer a window into the extent that European trade negotiators allow big business lobby groups to set the agenda. Among other things, the business community was seeking an active role in writing new regulations — the trans-Atlantic rules that might one day cover things like how poultry is cleaned and how trade secrets are protected.
“It’s a bit like enshrining a right to lobby in the E.U./U.S. trade agreement — that is what it is about,” said Pia Eberhardt, who follows trade issues for the Corporate Europe Observatory, a nonprofit group in Brussels that is critical of corporate ties to government.
European Commission officials cautioned that the documents detailing the conversations were out of date and said they had been released in error following similar records requests by The New York Times and the Corporate Europe Observatory.
The official American-European trade talks, which formally opened in July and were to resume this week in Brussels, have been temporarily delayed by the partial shutdown of the federal government in Washington. But the topic is very much alive. The European Union’s top trade official, Karel De Gucht, is expected to deliver a major policy address on Wednesday on United States-European trade.
Although last year’s preliminary discussions could end up having little influence on any final trade pact, the documents offered some hints at the ripest targets for business executives — as well as insights into the officials’ responses. The auto industry was seen as being “first and foremost” among industrial sectors where a melding of regulations from Brussels and Washington made sense, according to an assessment last December by the European trade commission. And the issue of duplicative trans-Atlantic testing procedures was seen as particularly relevant for the pharmaceutical industry.
Among the proposals made last October by business groups that are still on the table is a regulatory oversight group that would have the authority to continue to ensure that any new or existing trans-Atlantic rules are compatible, even after trade negotiations formally conclude. Businesses and other stakeholders would be able to propose regulatory changes to the council.
Peter Chase, a representative of the United States Chamber of Commerce in Brussels, said his group felt that “in order to turbocharge” existing regulatory cooperation, the trans-Atlantic trade agreement “needed to establish a goal toward which regulators should strive, of making our regulatory regimes more compatible, it should give them the tools to achieve that goal and should create an institutional framework to guide and encourage that cooperation.”
The oversight group has the backing of at least some European officials. “We should establish a regulatory cooperation council, which would include very high-level representatives of the regulatory agencies on both sides,” an official with direct knowledge of the negotiations, who was not authorized to speak on the record, said in an interview this week. The council, the official said, “would be responsible to guide and monitor the implementation of the regulatory commitments and to tackle new regulatory challenges in the future.”
While a regulatory cooperation group already exists, giving such a body teeth could reshape the regulatory ties between Europe and America for years to come.
“This was an idea that was mentioned more than a year ago and it continues to be discussed,” the official said, adding that it would be impossible to solve all of the regulatory challenges in a single trade agreement. “We need to create a mechanism to further this into the future,” the office said.
The documents included a 12-page assessment by the European trade commission drafted last December, examining joint proposals made by two major trade groups — the United States Chamber of Commerce and BusinessEurope — about how to structure the free trade agreement.
The documents also included a summary of a meeting between the trade groups and representatives from the commission’s trade and industrial agencies, as well as the office of the secretary general, to discuss the industry proposals. Commissions officials said this week that the representatives who attended the meeting were not high-level officials.
Ms. Eberhardtat said the Corporate Europe Observatory called the release of the documents “incredible.”
“I would say it shows two things — first, the enormous privileged access DG Trade grants big business lobby groups to set the agenda for the negotiations,” she said, referring to the name of the European Commission trade ministry. The second revelation in the documents, she said, is how the business community wants to use the trade talks “to change the way legislation is being done.”
“And it is quite striking,” Ms. Eberhart added, “to see how much energy the commission puts into dealing with these proposals and how seriously they take them, and how they are taken as a guide.”
In the assessment, European trade officials also approved of the trade group’s idea of requiring regulators on both sides of the Atlantic to consult with each other when they develop any significant new regulations on either side, in an effort to forestall future regulatory divergence.
But they did not universally embrace all of the business proposals. Officials were cool to the idea of industry and other stakeholders becoming involved in the process of writing regulations from the beginning, saying in their assessment that “we will need additional explanations why the existing systems do not suffice.” And there was a “strong backlash” from the office of the European secretary general to the idea when the sides met in person last November.
Some of the proposals, the assessment said, could “easily be mistaken for a (provocative) ‘deregulation’ agenda.”
Mr. Chase of the Chamber of Commerce said he was pleased by the trade commission’s assessment.
“It means that the European officials were giving the paper that we had submitted the serious consideration that I think it actually deserved,” he said. “And in reading their comments, I’m struck by how positive their overall assessment is — I should say struck and gratified — and I think that it reflects again that a lot of thought went into this on both sides of the Atlantic.”