June 13, 2014
Guest blogpost by Niels Gheyle, research intern at the Centre for EU Studies of Ghent University.
With the heat of the European elections starting to drop, analysts have started to scrutinize the impact of the eurosceptic surge. For some, the results were nothing less than a political earthquake. Critical voices were expected to do well in this year’s election, but the outcome nonetheless came as a shock. Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France, the UKIP of Nigel Farage in the UK, and the 5 Star Movement of comedian/politician Beppe Grillo in Italy, achieved the most notable victories. This raises questions, in particular about the debate surrounding the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Some are claiming that this surge in eurosceptic parties will spell the death knell of the free trade agreement. But what can we make of this?
No easy way through
Certainly, this election result will cause new upheaval for free trade protagonists. First of all: the abovementioned victories see the eurosceptic parties (from the left and the right) holding ca. 25 % of seats in the newly elected hemicycle. Given the fact that the European Green Party (another constellation extremely critical of the EU-US talks) also progressed in terms of seats, this immediately raises questions about the viability of a negotiated free trade arrangement, once it arrives in Parliament for a vote.
Secondly, the current approach of negotiations with our US counterparts could be met by new and extremely critical reactions; not the least because the newly elected MEPs will have to support Karel De Gucht or a new trade commissioner with a vote of confidence. The result of this could very well alter the way these discussions progress, or even the end result itself. The European Commission is indeed well aware that MEPs won’t be too shy to reject an agreement that doesn’t meet their expectations. After all, in 2012, only about 40 out of 756 MEPs voted in favor of the ACTA agreement (with among others, the US), so it never hit solid ground. Criticism on TTIP neatly reflects that of ACTA, with low transparency, secret negotiations and meddling with European standards again top priorities for sceptic observers.
The impact on national politics, thirdly, is for some the most important roadblock lying ahead. In many capital cities, governments are feeling the heat of extreme parties on the rise, and hope to regain some voters in the next election period. In order to achieve that though, at least some concessions to eurosceptic parties will have to be made. This could make it very difficult for the Commission to convince member states of accepting sensitive issues included in TTIP, possibly eroding the broad basis that TTIP was meant to cover.
TTIP is dead; long live TTIP
Even tough the number of roadblocks has augmented, this does not mean the end of TTIP as we know it. Regarding the divide in the Parliament, some indicate there still exists a majority of centre parties who seemed pro-TTIP in the past and may therefore ratify the agreement with a simple majority. Considering the fact that vote cohesion on international trade issues of the three largest parties combined is ca. 93%, this should not be that much of a struggle.
This could all, however, rapidly change in the next legislature. Power constellations in Parliament may have shifted only marginally; internally, there are some changes going on. The French Socialists, for example, seem uneager to team up with conservatives and liberals once again, and instead pledge for a real left-right divide. Considering the fact that a centre-right coalition consisting of ALDE, EPP and ECR does not have a majority any longer, this will most likely make the position of the European Socialists decisive. In the past year, they have clearly spoken out against the inclusion of an investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) agreement. If a package deal eventually comes to a vote, it will be intriguing how they will react.
This fraction discipline notion even relates to the sceptic parties: it is not so certain that all extreme movements will concur in their criticism on TTIP. UKIP, for example, shies away from more European integration, but certainly cannot be stamped as anti-free trade. So even if the extreme parties find each other in a new constellation (which certainly isn’t clear at the moment), they may not be allies in rejecting a US-EU trade deal.
Furthermore, the criticism about the secrecy of the negotiations and the uncertainty surrounding the eventual outcome, is not new. Since the very beginning of the trade talks, NGOs and civil society at large hammered the Commission for not being transparent and equitable in their interest representation. The fact that this criticism will now be supported by a larger group in Parliament, does not fundamentally alter the main task. After all, the Commission reassured civil society that their complaints will be taken in consideration, and that no European standards will be touched.
Bearing these considerations in mind, it certainly is early to make predictions. Especially so, when even after almost a year of negotiations, we still know very little about the technical details of the agreement. The vote for the new trade commissioner may be a struggle (and could possibly cause face loss for certain politicians), and the way national governments will take a stance in sensitive international trade questions remains to be seen. But piling it all up, TTIP still remains an important issue at both sides of the Atlantic, especially because some politicians (including Obama himself) stuck out their neck for this deal to go through. It will by all means be exciting to see how the European Commission will manoeuvre between these newly dropped roadblocks.
 Van den Putte, De Ville & Orbie (2014). The EP as an international actor in trade: Making its power felt.