A European court has upheld the European Commission practice of giving preferential access to trade documents to business lobbyists while keeping it out of the hands of everyone else. Corporate Europe Observatory, which launched a lawsuit against the practice in 2011, warned today that the decision will only deepen the secrecy around EU trade negotiations at the expense of the wider public interest.
"There is a big risk that the Commission will see the court ruling as a green light to continue to develop its trade policy behind closed doors, together with, and for, a tiny elite of corporate lobby groups. The result is a trade policy that caters for big business needs, but works against the interests of the bulk of the population in the EU and other parts of the world," said Pia Eberhardt of CEO.
In February 2011, CEO sued the European Commission for withholding information on the EU-India free trade negotiations that it was making readily available to corporate lobby groups. The case involved 17 documents (meeting reports, emails and letter) that DG Trade, the Commission's department responsible for the India FTA, shared with BusinessEurope and the Confederation of the European Food and Drink Industry (CIAA).
"Citizens and Parliamentarians are increasingly worried about the risks that the EU's corporate trade agenda poses to food safety, digital rights and environmental protection," added Eberhardt, referring to looming EU-US negotiations toward a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership agreement (TTIP). "Trade negotiations should be conducted in an open and democratically-accountable way, and it is high time that the Commission stops handing over the negotiating agenda to multinational companies. It is disappointing that the court ruling seems to point in exactly the opposite direction."
The corporate bias is unacceptable and unfortunately commonplace in otherwise democratic countries like the EU and Canada. Les Whittington wrote in the Toronto Star recently that, "Canadians have been kept in the dark about what's at stake for them in two major free-trade talks the Harper government is conducting with the European Union (EU) and an Asia-Pacific trading bloc."
Whittington explains that even though both agreements "could bring about wholesale change in Canada, touching everything from job creation to prescription drug costs to consumer prices and the ability of municipalities to favour local companies on large urban infrastructure projects," only business groups, labour and other interest groups that have signed non-disclosure agreements have access to the closed-door negotiations.
"It's really important that there be transparency and openness in these negotiations because they are delving into areas of policy-making that are very deep," said Teresa Healy, senior researcher at the Canadian Labour Congress, in the Toronto Star article. "They are burrowing down into provincial, territorial and subnational levels of government like school boards and universities and hospitals."
NDP trade critic Don Davies told Whittington the lack of information for parliamentarians interferes with their duty to hold governments accountable on trade, and that "It's been a feature of the Conservatives to manipulate information and to effectively bar the public from any kind of meaningful information on trade policy."
A new film by Friedrich Moser and Matthieu Lietart called The Brussels Business exposes the Commission's collusion with big business, in particular around trade negotiations, calling it the "grey zone underneath European democracy." The documentary, which was released earlier this year in Europe and is now available for download on iTunes, bills itself as "an expedition into the world of the 15,000 lobbyists in the EU-capital, of the PR-conglomerates, think tanks and their all embracing networks of power and their close ties to the political elites."
Corporate Europe Observatory says it will now carefully analyse the ruling and consider next steps. "A potential appeal would need to be filed within two months and ten days," they say.
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