TTIP Will Not Be Finished While Obama Is President
Above Photo: CONSOLATION PRIZE? — President Barack Obama holds up a parking pass given to him during a celebration of the 2015 NHL champion Chicago Blackhawks at the White House on Thursday. The White House said this week that it’s giving up on clinching a trade pact with the EU before the president’s term ends. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
The Obama administration has all but given up on a trade agreement with the European Union.
Negotiations on the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership continue, but the administration is so invested in saving its other free trade agreement – the Trans-Pacific Partnership – that it has punted the T-TIP to the next administration.
“I do not believe that we’re going to reach a T-TIP agreement before the president leaves office,” White House spokesman John Earnest said this week. “But he’s certainly interested in moving those negotiations forward and in a direction where we can be confident that the economy of the United States will be enhanced through the completion of an agreement, hopefully under the leadership of the next U.S. President.”
That was the last thing EU officials wanted to hear. They know the next president may not be the ardent free-trader that Obama has become. He or she may have no interest in the T-TIP.
The U.S. needs to “step up to the plate,” said EU Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development Phil Hogan. “We’ve had a very difficult and frustrating time in the last year, in order to get some movement from the United States.”
However, Earnest “may have let the cat out of the bag in terms of the ambition of the American negotiators,” Hogan said.
What the Europeans may not fully appreciate, though, is that U.S. presidential candidates say whatever they think they need to say to get elected. Once in office, a new president is free to renege on whatever he or she said during the campaign. This has been known to happen.
Take Obama. He said during his 2008 campaign that NAFTA had been “a big mistake,” and that he would demand a renegotiation of it as president. “We should use the hammer of a potential opt-out as leverage to ensure that we actually get labor and environmental standards that are enforced,” he said.
Obviously, he hasn’t followed up on that. Instead he pushed three new free trade agreements – with South Korea, Colombia and Panama – through Congress. And his U.S. trade representative is trying to win approval of the two largest trade agreements ever negotiated – the TPP and the T-TIP.
All the 2016 presidential candidates have taken positions on the TPP, but not on the T-TIP. If Bernie Sanders is elected, the Europeans can forget about it. Hillary Clinton once praised the T-TIP as “an economic NATO,” but she was secretary of state then and had to stick with the company line. She hasn’t said anything about it as a candidate.
If the next president is a Republican and the T-TIP negotiations aren’t finished when he takes office, he can tell the U.S. negotiators to change course so that the agreement reflects his priorities instead of Obama’s. That might work on this side of the pond, but not in the EU, where radical conservatism and obeisance to corporate capitalism don’t influence policy-making to the extent they do here. There is no European equivalent to the Tea Party to speak of.
The U.S. and the EU have been negotiating the T-TIP since 2013. They next meet on February 22 in Brussels. Obama’s ambivalence can only be frustrating and demoralizing to negotiators on both sides. They know they’re trying to reach agreement on a text that may never see the light of day.
“Therefore,” said Hogan, “it’s a matter now in the next round of negotiations in the near future for the United States to step up to the plate, to acknowledge that we have to make some serious moves in the short space of time or otherwise it will confirm what the White House spokesman said.”