Thilo Bode:
A Conversation about Democracy and TTIP


“We do not think that beef treated with hormones is an unsafe product. The US has successfully proceeded against the EU before the World Trade Organization (WTO) because the ban in the EU has no scientific basis.” Given statements like this one made by the current US Secretary of Agriculture, Thomas Vilsack, the majority of Europeans fearing a free trade agreement with the US seems reasonable. Germans in particular are expressing their criticism. Last October in Berlin, 250,000 people took to the streets with the slogan, “For fair world trade.”

What American politics readily dismisses as ‘German anxiety’ has its foundation in a real set of problems. With the agreement, the trend to high agriculture and food standards in Europe, which, granted, do have some room for improvement, is not merely in danger; the standards already in place can be overridden if they compromise trade. This would affect, for instance, the labeling of harmful substances. To put it as simply as possible, the whole issue can be broken down into the usual formula: business over environment + health. The question on everyone’s minds is what that will amount to.

Yet as crucial as environmental and health protection issues are, TTIP touches our political self-understanding even deeper. We met up with Thilo Bode, founder of Foodwatch and former Executive Director of Greenpeace, to discuss his main criticism: endangering democratic processes.

With TTIP as a factor, the American presidential election gets interesting. Both Sanders and Trump are against the agreement for highly unrelated reasons. As for Clinton, it is still uncertain which way her TTIP flag will fly.

foodwatch_thilobode_8715_01 kleinThilo Bode, Founder and Executive Director of Foodwatch, © foodwatch

Mr. Bode, your biggest critique of the free trade agreement, between Europe and the U.S., TTIP, is the threat it is posing to the democratic process. Does this pertain more to the drafting of the agreement or its repercussions once it goes into effect?

Both. TTIP has been drafted without the input of a single member of parliament. That is problematic in that TTIP not only affects trade technicalities; it has direct bearing on constitutional matters, such as regulatory cooperations.

From a democratic perspective it is further problematic that the negotiations do not include any dialogue with members of parliament or the public, even though the issues being negotiated directly affect consumers. And this is supposed to be the basis for a yes or no to ratification. The parliamentarians can advocate or refuse the contract but they don’t have any influence on the text. Without feedback or public debate such a yes or no decision is a democratic disaster.

Not to mention the provisional implementation in practice before the parliaments had a chance to say anything.

Is the provisional implementation specific to TTIP, or are trade agreements generally handled in such a manner?

All agreements have been provisionally implemented. So it’s nothing special. But TIPP is a special case. TIPP is exceptional. It is a new generation of trade agreements. They used to be about customs duties and barriers to market entry. Now it’s about regulations that influence the everyday life of billions of citizens. From the colour of blinkers to chemical safety. If the regulations in various economic zones are different it is inconvenient. And regional labelling for foodstuffs is of course a trade barrier for American exporters because it creates competition. Unjustified competition as they see it. That’s what’s being negotiated, not customs duties.

And these regulations make advancing consumers’ rights impossible.

Yes. A kind of freeze on socio-political regulations is underway. With normal customs agreements that’s not a problem. They get mandated, and then you can terminate them. But when, as in our case, you can no longer unilaterally amend regulations to health protection or labour rights, it is critical. In all fields related to TTIP we can in future only improve our standards if the US agrees. A further aspect is the “Regulatory Cooperation”: at executive committees plans are discussed or even decided without the participation of parliamentarians. This way, you’re actually creating a new set of rules, a new political realm without a corresponding political office. This is often compared with the E.U by the TTIP proponents. But it is different. In the case of the EU we had a clear mandate. First we held parliament, and then we settled on the agreement. We decided to work toward a political union. In the case of the U.S. you can also want that. But that has to be publicly debated. And it simply isn’t.

Why this new model of agreement right now?

Because customs duties are almost obsolete. Four billion euros cross the Atlantic every day. Except for agriculture and a couple of other exceptions there are no more substantial tariffs. The average tariff burden is 2 – 3%. Consolidation of trade is going to be introduced by other means. What will happen, however, is a deflection of the trade away from the third countries. They’ll take a hit.

Yes, that is very interesting with regards to the spectre of China. There is a huge fear here in the West of lagging behind China economically. With TTIP, or so it seems, we can stay competitive.

Yes. That is the so-called geo-strategic rationale for TTIP. A question the U.S. deals with is how to keep the Chinese at bay. But I don’t want to comment on that. What I find really problematic are the negative effects on the Third World, on North African countries, for instance. Regarding foreign policy, that has severe consequences, as we already discriminate against these countries with our agricultural policy. The issue of refugees, the radicalization of parts of society, this is all related to poverty and lack of opportunity. We have terrible conditions in Tunisia for example. But that’s already jumping ahead. Let’s focus on the issue of what kind of effects this will all have in Europe on the democratic process, consumers’ right of choice, and the continuing progress of socio-political regulations. In my opinion this is not being discussed sufficiently.

What do you think is the primary interest in TTIP for officials?

Although it may sound like a conspiracy theory at first, it is true that regulatory sovereignty will be given over to the construct of the Regulatory Cooperation Council, which favours economic interests. Agreements made in the name of the Regulatory Cooperation Council partly do not need approval of the European Parliament anymore. And that shows us that our hunch was right, speculatively right. And even if the committee only has an advisory function it has a defining effect on law-making processes.

 So you assume that TTIP’s goal is de-democratization?

There are several interests. One is the interest of the economy. The whole thing has been pushed by the economy because it wants to have its hand in future regulations. My interlocutors have confirmed this. The second argument is that of the transatlanticists. They want to draw upon a collective community of values. They are quite strong although in my opinion they are not really to be taken seriously. And the third position claims: Terrific! A free reflationary programme!

… because they think this will stimulate growth.

Yes. And all of these stances ultimately say: Make way for the economy! Whether or not democracy is upheld does not matter. The arguments are: if we don’t strengthen the economy we cannot survive in the global market, etc. The actual economic surplus value cannot even be determined thought. It might be really low if you believe the surveys. But there are also people doing business with China who don’t care about the state of human rights there. These are common opinions. We aren’t up against the question of what is wrong and what is right, but rather, what interests will prevail?

Now our task is to educate people about what’s going on, and we are succeeding. In the Netherlands the approval rate has drastically decreased – by 11 % – although the country actually had the most TTIP proponents. Making the effort to shed light on the situation, that’s what’s needed. It shows: the more the people know about the TTIP the more sceptical they are.

We hope for more of such success stories. Thank you for the conversation.



Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.