TAFTA: the stakes of the Europe-Obama arm wrestling match

US President Barack Obama, on a visit to Germany, is seeking, with the support of his friend Angela Merkel, to push through the Transatlantic Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA) despite strong criticism from a large section of civil society in both Europe and the United States. Time is running out for the US President, who would like to validate his project before the end of his mandate. France's role in this power struggle is not very clear. The French President could see this as an opportunity to position himself strongly by taking the lead in a decisive split for the future. An opportunity to restore his image after a year of presidential elections that seem increasingly compromised for him.
Barack Obama has chosen to make the German leg of his European trip a strategic moment in the negotiations between the European Union and the United States on the future of world trade. His relations with Angela Merkel have long been very friendly. The US President sees the German Chancellor as a "guardian of Europe", and relations between the two leaders are marked by great mutual esteem. The German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine even going so far as to call Obama and Merkel "soul mates."
Barack Obama's manoeuvre will not be easy because the negotiations around the TAFTA are stumbling over deep divergences between the two parties. Three major obstacles seem difficult to resolve and have been the subject of several rounds of criticism since the start of the negotiations in 2013.

Recurring criticism

The first bursts of criticism concern the invasion of American products that are now banned in Europe because of more protective standards: chickens washed with chlorine, hormone-treated beef, GMOs, etc. Europeans, understanding that this is a particularly sensitive issue, say they want to establish a kind of red line protecting European health regulations. This is a pious hope for the time being because the negotiations have not yet produced any results on this sensitive subject.
The other criticism concerns dispute resolution. Although it may seem very technical, this subject is nevertheless fundamental. The principle is to establish a parallel justice system to apply the content of the Treaty. Public judges would be replaced by private arbitrators who would be given a very wide margin of manoeuvre. There is no doubt that these arbitrators will be subject to pressure from the lobbying of large transnational corporations, not to mention the potential conflicts of interest that this model will generate. It is to be feared that these arbitrators will become a veritable army raised against the States to attack anything that would hinder the free trade contractualized in the treaty. It is to be feared that, as this is Anglo-Saxon-sounding justice, the cost of the procedures carried out by health, food or digital giants will bring States to their knees.
Another subject, less visible because it is very technical, concerns the issue of regulatory convergence. This is nothing more and nothing less than a Trojan Horse allowing a few technocrats to destroy European and American regulations behind closed doors, once the Treaty is signed and public opinion looks the other way. All sensitive subjects, such as chlorinated chicken and GMOs, could thus be removed from the body of the Transatlantic Treaty, only to return a few years later through this back door.
In general, the TAFTA is perfectly in line with the ultra-liberal policy pursued by the European Commission for decades. A policy hostile to monopolies or public services and in favour of free competition in as many sectors as possible. The European Commission assures that "public services" will be excluded from the scope of liberalisation, without ever defining what it means by "public service". Here again, vagueness produces suspicion.

READ IN UP' : TAFTA: Negotiations resume, in complete secrecy and opacity

The bronca of civil society

Outside the walls of negotiations scrupulously kept secret by the official protagonists, the voices of public opinion in both Europe and the United States are making themselves heard, increasingly hostile to the Treaty. The demonstrations accompanying each of the episodes of this soap opera are becoming more and more numerous. In Germany, an opposition demonstration on Saturday brought together several tens of thousands of people. In Paris, the participants in Nuit Debout declared the Place de la République a "non-TAFTA zone".
Even within the European governments themselves, there are voices openly critical of the Treaty. The most recent manifestation of impatience to date was that of the German Minister for Economic Affairs, Sigmar Gabriel, the second in command, who warned: "The Treaty is not a treaty that can be ratified by all Member States. the negotiations will fail without concessions from Washington ». The minister sums up his thinking by saying that the current text boils down to a motto: " Buy American! ".
A few weeks earlier, it was the French Secretary of State for Foreign Trade, Matthias Fekl, who told the German daily Handelsblatt that if the United States did not move, there was a danger that the negotiations would continue. On March 8, he was even more forceful, describing as "...the US is not going to move.... real coup "The European Commission's desire to do without the opinion of the national parliaments in order to ratify the Treaty. To improve the mood, the government-mandated Economic and Social Council (EESC) recently published a report highlighting a number of principles and "red lines" on which the European Union could in no way give way. Without suggesting that the government should stand in head-on opposition, the EESC recommends, at the very least, a certain amount of caution.

READ ALSO IN UP' : TAFTA: the EESC timidly draws red lines

An issue that becomes political

The TAFTA is gradually shifting the opinions and positions of States. From a technical discussion, the issue has become political. With, in addition, pressure from electoral clocks on both sides of the Atlantic. In his desire to pass the agreement quickly, Obama is obliged to mark his positions, which appear increasingly intransigent for his European partners. Some even speak of the American President's propensity to dominate. For their part, driven by their public opinion, European leaders, for their part, can resolve to attend a poker game during which America intends to take the pot without concession.
This is why we are seeing some heads of state slowly joining the camp of the "grumpy". This is what French President François Hollande did when he slipped, on his television show Citizens' Dialoguesa phrase that almost went unnoticed: " France has set its conditions. France has said that if there is no reciprocity, if there is no transparency, if there is a danger for farmers, if there is no access to public markets and if, on the other hand, the United States can have access to everything we do here, I will not accept it. ".
It is questionable whether this position is a posture or a sign of purposeful deceleration from the TAFTA process. The answer to this question is not self-evident. Indeed, the French president could have taken advantage of the momentum of the signing of the Paris Climate Agreement (COP 21) in New York to firmly oppose the Transatlantic Treaty on the sole grounds of environmental protection. Indeed, the Treaty raises questions in economic matters but also in environmental matters. The Free Trade Treaty is, by its very nature, an obstacle to the development of short routes and contributes to the increase in the transport of goods over long distances, factors which have a proven destabilising effect on the climate. However, the environmental register is absent from the criticism.
What seems more important in the eyes of the government is the imbalance of the Treaty in favour of the Americans and, consequently, the inadequacy of its supposed role as a growth accelerator for the major French industrial groups.
It is in this perspective that the press release published by MEDEF on 21 April should be read. The French employers' organisation is strongly advocating the signing of the Treaty, which it sees as an opportunity for French companies: " For French companies, the US market represents an important growth driver in a fragile French and European economic context. More important than compliance with the timetable, what matters is the content of this draft agreement: the opening up of public procurement markets, application of the agreement by the States, inclusion of financial services, etc. Provided they are ambitious and balanced, these negotiations can stimulate trade and investment. ".
In the fierce competition between American and European groups, anything that can hinder business is outlawed. This is why the French position does not address the problem of deregulation of health and environmental standards. The vagueness is deliberately maintained. An emblematic example of this attitude can be found in the cacophony that appears within the High Council for Biotechnology (HCB). The ambiguity of the French public authorities' position on the new plant variety breeding processes developed by the major life sciences firms has led several organizations to slam the door.

READ ALSO IN UP ' Clash on biotechs: Do new genetic techniques generate GMOs?

The TAFTA reveals, in a landscape of ideological shifts and electoral realignments, a fundamental change in our societies. Politicians understand, still confusedly, that their position in relation to the Treaty is a political act that could prove decisive. François Hollande, faced with a presidential campaign that appears to many to be lost in advance, could see this opportunity as a chance to get back on track. Indeed, the Treaty is no longer a simple "international trade" issue. It reveals the determination of those in power to regain control of the market race and globalisation without constraints. This could serve as a fundamental cleavage in the political debates that lie ahead. Positions need to be taken now. 

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