Expert dialogue: Rough road ahead for TTIP, but not because of leak

Two researchers explain how the controversial trade agreement became so unpopular

Last week, Greenpeace leaked 248 pages of classified documents from the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations. In the wake of this leak, we brought together two TTIP researchers, who explain how groups like Greenpeace are shaping the discussion surrounding the agreement, and debate whether the deal still has a chance.  

duer2Andreas Dür is a professor of international politics at the University of Salzburg. He has conducted research on how interest groups and public officials shape public opinion about TTIP and is a principal investigator of DESTA, the Design of Trade Agreements project.

polanco2Rodrigo Polanco is a researcher and lecturer at the World Trade Institute in Bern and an assistant professor of international economic law at the University of Chile. He is investigating the increasing importance of regulatory coherence in preferential trade agreements.


ResearchGate: What was the state of public opinion on TTIP in Europe before Greenpeace leaked the documents?

Andreas Dür: Overall, support for TTIP has been declining in Europe, but there is considerable variation among countries. Opposition to the agreement has been concentrated in Austria and Germany, with negative public opinion in Luxemburg and Slovenia too. In contrast, there’s been really strong support in several Eastern European countries, as well as in Malta and Ireland.

Rodrigo Polanco: I agree. My impression is that public opinion on TTIP—what I read in the press, the comments on the internet—is mostly negative.

RG: Why are environmental activist groups like Greenpeace particularly concerned about TTIP?

Polanco: Their concerns are not necessarily specific to TTIP. We’ve seen this before with TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Some environmental activist groups think these types of agreements will limit states’ ability to regulate and maintain environmental standards. The biggest issue is that these treaties include investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS). These are mechanisms that allow foreign investors to bring states before an arbitral body that decides over violations of treaty provisions. Environmental groups worry this could force member states and the EU to reduce environmental standards or limit their ability to improve their environmental standards in the future.

Dür: Yes, this is exactly what these groups are concerned about. Of course it’s not only environmental activist groups involved in TTIP discussion. In Germany for example, one of the early vocal groups was Mehr Demokratie, an NGO promoting direct democracy. Our research found a kind of avalanche effect: a handful of groups start lobbying on an issue, this creates interest among the public, and that attracts much more lobbying by other groups. Of course public attention is important for interest groups, so they have to jump on the bandwagon of such campaigns, and that contributes to the diversity of groups lobbying against TTIP.

“The leaks indicate the two sides might actually still be very far apart.”

RG: Brussels is downplaying the significance of the leaks. What new information do they contain?

Dür: I don’t think these leaks are particularly interesting for those already following the TTIP debate. They basically contain the positons of the United States on a series of issues in the negotiation. These American positions were already well known. Of course the US has strong agricultural interests, and they want to pry open foreign markets for their agricultural products. There is one aspect that is revealing, confirming suspicions that I and other researchers have had, namely that the positions of the US and EU are a lot farther apart than the European Commission admits. The Commission had released a chart showing considerable progress in all areas of the negotiations, but the leaks indicate the two sides might actually still be very far apart.

Polanco: Yes, the only thing new to me was that the leaked text shows the EU focusing more on the procedures of how to enact regulations than they do in their public position. I don’t see anything very controversial there.

Dür: Of course, we don’t even know whether the leaked papers are completely up-to-date. Public debate has already surpassed what’s in the leaked papers. In the US, for example, there has been loads of discussion about the question of a more permanent court system for the investment cases. And that’s not really reflected in these documents.

Polanco: I think this is a very important point. You’ll also recall that WikiLeaks leaked TPP documents some years ago, and in the end, the final texts were different than the documents in the leak. So, the documents in this leak may not be up-to-date, and even if they are, things can change dramatically during the negotiation process.

“My normative concern about the TTIP debate is that groups like Greenpeace are pushed to focus on issues that are actually non-issues.”

RG: Was the leak good strategy on Greenpeace’s part?

Dür: We have to keep in mind that Greenpeace—like any other organization of course—aims not only to impact policy, but also to ensure its own survival. That means attracting supporters and donors, and TTIP is really a perfect issue for that purpose. My normative concern about the TTIP debate is that groups like Greenpeace are pushed to focus on issues that are actually non-issues. One issue that always comes up with TTIP is chlorine-washed chicken, and I’m pretty sure most people working for Greenpeace know this is a non-issue. We eat chlorine-washed lettuce, and nobody complains, but we can’t have chlorine-washed chicken? There are much more important issues we could be talking about. The Panama Papers on tax evasion are in my opinion a much bigger issue, and they’re already disappearing from public debate. But for Greenpeace, it is of course an excellent strategy to use such a leak to draw attention to this issue that they’re lobbying on.

RG: And you think the leak will be effective in influencing the public?

Dür: Definitely. Interest group messaging is the only explanation for the changes in public opinion on TTIP that we have seen over the last years. As part of my research, I did a survey experiment in which some people were told some things about TTIP, others were told another thing about it, and then they were all asked to assess the issue. The results show that issues like investor-state dispute settlement have a huge impact on public opinion. Attitudes of people change very radically once they are told that TTIP could include such ISDS provisions. So I am completely convinced that the interest groups, the NGOs lobbying on that issue, have had a major impact on public opinion.

Polanco: Yes, it’s clear this group leaked the texts to enhance their public position. That’s important for an NGO, but I think that when you do this type of leak without providing the right context, then you may be misleading the public a little bit. Let’s take the ISDS, for example. When you read what interest groups are saying about it, you get the impression that TTIP would be creating something completely new between the EU and the US. In fact, there are already nine bilateral investment treaties with ISDS mechanisms between eastern EU member states and the US. So these countries are not “safe” from this kind of arbitration without TTIP. In fact, you could argue they would be better off under TTIP if its investment chapter is modeled after CETA, the agreement between the EU and Canada, which gives states a lot more regulatory space and opportunities to defend themselves against arbitration than the current investment treaties between the US and countries like Poland and the Czech Republic. So, when you say that TTIP is creating investor-state arbitration, it’s only true for some countries of Europe. Others are well exposed to that risk already. Another important piece of missing context is that Germany, one of the top countries opposing TTIP, is also the country with the most investment treaties worldwide. These treaties protect German investors abroad, but suddenly now that there’s a proposal to protect foreign investors in Germany, there’s a public outcry. In part, this is because the public is getting information about TTIP that’s missing the broader context, without which it’s very difficult to judge the effects of the agreement.

“The public is getting information about TTIP that’s missing the broader context, without which it’s very difficult to judge.”

RG: Will the Greenpeace leak have a long-term effect on the outcome of TTIP?

Polanco: I don’t think so. Maybe people who were already against the agreement will be even more against it, but my impression is that it won’t make much difference. I do think the leak highlights a huge problem both negotiation parties need to address: transparency. We’re hearing again and again from negotiators that treaties have always been negotiated in secret, but times have changed, and the public wants to know more. It’s true that negotiations can’t advance if everything is made public immediately, but I think the EU and US need to find a balance and make much more information available. If they can do this, I think the negotiation could go forward.

Dür: I have to say, I’m much more pessimistic about the possibility that TTIP could actually eventually be implemented. It’s very difficult to imagine that public opinion, especially in Germany and Austria, could turn around to support the agreement. The latest polling in Germany indicates that 70 percent of the public is against TTIP, and in Austria it’s even more. It’s true that’s in part because of misinformation, but when it comes time for the agreement to be ratified, public opinion will be important. As it stands now, TTIP must be ratified by all the national parliaments, and there’s a strong majority in the Austrian Parliament that’s opposed to TTIP. In Germany I can’t see the Social Democrats actually supporting TTIP in parliament either. There are problems in Belgium and France as well. I’ve been pleading for a “TTIP Light” for some time, some version of the agreement that’s stripped of its more controversial aspects to focus on those most relevant economically. I personally am not convinced that ISDS is an essential feature of a trade agreement between the EU and the US. This slimmed down version of the agreement could get through. TTIP in full? That’s not going to be ratified.

Polanco: I think that’s an accurate analysis, but again it depends on the context. One of the reasons they started to negotiate this agreement was in reaction to TPP. If that’s ratified after the US elections, I wonder how much that could impact TTIP, regardless of public opinion. I think in that atmosphere, parliaments might push through some version of TTIP, be it “TTIP Light” or the full version. Either way, the TPP context will have an impact, it’s just that we don’t know what that impact will be yet.

Featured image: Anti-TTIP flyers. Courtesy of Sinn Féin.