The debate on secrecy about TTIP negotiations is focused on the European Commission not disclosing sufficient information on the positions it defends at the negotiation table. Despite several efforts to improve transparency, such concerns remain prevalent. We argue, however, that the largest obstacle secrecy poses for the success of the TTIP negotiations may not be found on the side of the Commission but within the Council.
By Johan Adriaensen & Vigjilenca Abazi
On 8 July, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership by 436 to 241 votes. With the heated debates in committees and plenary in mind, the adoption was received as a vote of (limited) confidence for the European Commission. Support of the European Parliament is but a small victory and the main challenge may still lie ahead. As TTIP touches upon competencies of the member states, it will need to be ratified by all national parliaments of the European Union. And while the Commission’s communication strategy has borne fruit in the European institutions, it fails to convince the hearts and minds of the broader public. Public opinion on EU politics is mainly formed through national media and national debates. The absence of national representatives in such debates may be part of the explanation.
The member states interact continuously with the Commission and provide detailed information to guide the latter’s negotiating efforts. Despite their strong involvement in the negotiating process, these national representatives are hardly held accountable by their respective constituencies. Traditionally, the need for secrecy in Council decision-making was considered a prerequisite for integration. It enabled national executives to enact reforms that would be too sensitive to be implemented in the domestic political arena without jeopardising their reelection. A bureaucratic, unelected Commission was therefore the ideal scapegoat to shift the blame should critique arise.
This strategy, we believe, has reached its limitations in the TTIP negotiations. The silent treatment will not promote the European project, rather the contrary. Instead of more integration through secrecy, national governments should use the TTIP as an opportunity to bridge the crevice between European politics and the national citizen.
The Commission recognised the limitations of their communicative efforts earlier this year as the chief negotiator for TTIP, Ignacio Bercero, called upon the member states to play a more active role in public debates; a call that was echoed by Commissioner Malmström at a public lecture in Maastricht set by the Centre for European Research in Maastricht. At the European Parliament we have also seen this sentiment take root. Dutch MEP, Marietje Schaake repeatedly called upon her government to engage with civil society on TTIP. And in the resolution that was approved on Wednesday, the European Parliament promotes a closer engagement with the member states to forge an “active involvement in better communicating the scope and the possible benefits of the agreement for European citizens “
The member states have recognised their responsibility in the Council Conclusions adopted on 20th of March 2015 but it remains to be seen how active they will become in explaining and defending the positions they have taken on the TTIP negotiations for the last year and half.
The nondisclosure of the negotiating mandate was held against the Commission for a long time despite it being a Council prerogative to release it to the public. In much the same vain, it is important to emphasize that should the agreement be rejected in a national parliament our fingers should not be pointing at the Commission but rather at that nation’s government. It would imply a failure of the government to properly represent its citizen’s interests.
Johan Adriaensen & Vigjilenca Abazi are postdoctoral researchers at Maastricht University and research coordinators at the Centre for European Research in Maastricht.