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Do international trade agreements threaten our democratic choices?

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The European Union is increasing the number of bilateral free trade agreements, in all opacity. This is the analysis and point of view of the foodwatch association, which defends the rights of consumer citizens to greater transparency in the food sector and access to healthy food. A few days before the European elections, the organisation denounces the excesses of trade policy in Europe and is taking the European Union Free Trade Agreement with Singapore (EUSFTA) to the Constitutional Court in Germany. For a truly "Europe that protects", the AACC and its cousins must be suspended as a matter of urgency and transparency, democracy and social and environmental justice must be re-injected into Europe. Explanations.
 
Ahe Secretary of State to the Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne, presented a progress report on the AETC and other free trade agreements to the Trade Policy Monitoring Committee on Tuesday 21 May 2019. This meeting brought together industry federations and civil society organisations.
foodwatch took the opportunity to put its fist back on the table by calling for the suspension of the AACC and the latest agreements negotiated by the EU. On 16 May 2019, foodwatch, together with its partners Mehr Demokratie and Campact, filed a complaint with the Constitutional Court in Germany against the European Union-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (EUSFTA).
" More than ever we need a Europe with more transparency and democracy and a trade policy that does not trample on citizens' rights, social and environmental justice. A Europe that resists the lobbies of the multinationals. But it is the exact opposite of a "Europe that protects" with the AACC and its cousins, denounces karine Jacquemart, director of foodwatch France. « The stubbornness of Emmanuel Macron and his European partners for this form of forced and negotiated free trade without democratic debate is a breeding ground for withdrawal and populist movements against Europe. It is irresponsible ".
 

"Rights for the people, rules for the corporations."

This is the motto of a coalition of more than 150 organisations from 16 European countries, including foodwatch, to demand that European leaders put an end to the exceptional justice system enjoyed by multinational companies and introduce binding regulations to ensure that they respect - finally! - human rights and the environment.
 
The risks of these new-generation free trade agreements, which consider just about everything as barriers to trade to be removed or circumvented, including social and environmental standards, are indeed well known: for the protection of social rights, consumers and the environment, agriculture and food.
These treaties provide for mechanisms that will result in a freeze on regulations, or even make it impossible to improve them when they still need to be strengthened with regard to health protection, transparency of labelling (Nutri-score), pesticides, GMOs, etc. The Commission is therefore proposing that the Council and the European Parliament should adopt a resolution on this issue.
 
Most of the time, this type of agreement has a simple objective: to reduce customs duties in order to stimulate trade. But the AACC and its cousins go further: the challenge is to tackle the other 'barriers to trade', i.e. differences in norms and standards. The problem is that this concerns not only technical standards, but also regulations that protect the environment, social rights or consumers. These agreements go much further than trade issues and will in fact have a lasting impact on our daily lives.
How? These agreements jeopardise the ability of our democratic institutions to decide freely on policies of general interest. The examples below are based on the cases of AACC and TAFTA, but are largely valid for most of the agreements currently being negotiated by the EU, as revealed in the foodwatch and PowerShift study published in February 2018. Trade at all costs? "which examines draft agreements with Mercosur, Japan, Mexico, Vietnam and Indonesia.
 
- The precautionary measurea "trade barrier to be eliminated"? In Europe, a mere suspicion of harmfulness, if well-founded, is enough to ban a product or process. In the United States and Canada, on the other hand, a food can remain on the market as long as its dangerousness has not been proven. However, this principle is absolutely not guaranteed either in the text of the AACC or in the other draft agreements studied.
 
- The settlement of disputes between investors and states: the possibility offered to foreign companies to attack states before arbitration tribunals on the grounds that political decisions would affect their profits, real or expected, is a veritable sword of Damocles. The mere threat of lawsuits may deter governments from adopting new regulations concerning, for example, public health and, of course, food.
 
- Regulatory cooperation: deciding on common standards for car turn signals, no problem. But here again, CETA and TAFTA go much further, with a new process outside the usual democratic decision-making channels. In the driving seat? A "forum" or "committee" of non-elected people who will have a say in the regulations decided after the adoption of the treaties. The AACC is setting up more than ten committees... and the other draft agreements studied also provide for committees with wide powers without adequate democratic control.
 
If these agreements succeed as they stand, there is a great risk that the harmonisation of consumer and health protection standards will lead to a race to the bottom and block the possibility of increasing these levels of protection. For foodwatch, the loss of regulatory sovereignty for the states and the EU is detrimental to democracy.
 

"AACC...inevitably brings uncertainties and risks."

This is one of the conclusions of the report of the Schubert Commission commissioned by Emmanuel Macron, which is very clear on these risks: It states that "biotechnology [i.e. GMOs] is also a point that requires vigilance.
The Government committed itself at the time to greater transparency and to ensuring that "health and sustainable development issues are taken into account in trade agreements". However, the European Union continues to negotiate agreements that always present the same dangers, without any guarantee for the European precautionary principle, the protection of social rights or even the protection of the environment and the planet.
90% of the AACC text is already implemented and are advancing treaties with Japan (JEFTA was adopted on 12 December 2018), Singapore (adopted by the European Parliament on 13 February, Vietnam, Indonesia, Mexico, Mercosur (Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay), etc.) and the United States. 
 

The weight of the lobbies

These treaties open wide the door to the influence of lobbies, right from the drafting phase of new regulations. Thus, they will have an official say even before national and European elected representatives, representatives of the citizens, are consulted. All this is made possible by "regulatory cooperation".
On paper, this cooperation between the European Union and its partners (Canada for the AACC) seems harmless. It would simply be a matter of agreeing to eliminate trade and investment barriers as far as possible. Why not "cooperate" on regulations to avoid unnecessary costs, or unwarranted administrative duplication? It makes sense to harmonise the colour or size of car turn signals on both sides of the Atlantic.
Except that it goes much further than that. Regulatory cooperation ensures that lobbies have access to the development of regulations and draft laws. They will be consulted, will be able to make comments and demand responses - a mechanism called "regulatory cooperation". notice and comment " across the Atlantic - upstream of the process. Their dream: to be able to slow down or even block new rules and to be almost co-authors of new laws. The United States Chamber of Commerce has, moreover qualified the regulatory cooperation of "a gift that keeps on giving".

The European Commission promises that standards will not be lowered, and that the standards in force in Europe will not be lowered. However, the experience of voluntary transatlantic cooperation in recent years suggests that the worst is likely to happen after the implementation of the AETC and TAFTA (see the NGO report Corporate Europe Observatory).

 
Clearly, regulatory cooperation will go far beyond the harmonisation of flashing lights. The objective is much more ambitious: to eliminate as many "non-tariff barriers" to trade as possible, i.e. legislative differences. In other words, divergent standards, such as the precautionary principle or social and environmental rules, such as the ban on GMOs or hormone-treated beef. If the laws are not identical between Canada, the United States and the European Union, it is because our elected representatives do not make identical decisions.
 
These processes, and the role of more than a dozen committees in the AACC example, will take place outside the usual channels of democratic decision-making. To implement them, the committees and a regulatory cooperation "forum" of non-elected trade representatives will be able to take decisions on regulations, in discussion with stakeholders, in particular industry lobbies. An "early warning" system will ensure that the other party (Canada in this case) is informed and consulted at the early stages of drafting and drafting new regulations, i.e. before parliamentarians are consulted.
 
How is it planned to iron out these differences in the rules? There are several possibilities: harmonisation - deciding on a new common rule, and mutual recognition - admitting different rules as equivalent. The principle of regulatory co-operation would apply continuously, as soon as the agreement is adopted. These are what are known as "living" agreements. For example, sectoral working groups would be responsible on an ongoing basis for analysing current and future legislation in terms of its impact on transatlantic trade.
 
The commission of experts commissioned by the Government in June 2017 to analyse the health and environmental risks of the AACC stresses: "The AACC is a so-called living agreement. Its content will be clarified and supplemented by the cooperation institutions it creates", which "inevitably leads to uncertainties and risks" (Extract from the report page 5). (Source: foodwatch Nov.2018).
 

More transparency and democratic debate

foodwatch therefore calls for a freeze on current negotiations and a review of trade policy to make it compatible with European social and environmental requirements and to establish a new European trade policy.
International trade must first and foremost take account of the general interest of the people, rather than primarily satisfy the interests of multinationals. However, the AACC and the free trade agreements examined in the study "Trade at any price" do not respect this fundamental criterion. On the contrary, they risk compromising existing standards of protection and undermining initiatives to strengthen them in the future. These negotiations must therefore be halted and the European Union must develop a new trade policy that gives priority to the rights of populations and consumers.
(Source : CP foodwatchMay 2019)
 

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