TTIP & media, Perspectives from both sides of the Atlantic: EurActiv speech in Washington DC

TTIP & media, Perspectives from both sides of the Atlantic: EurActiv speech in Washington DC

This is a lightly edited version of my speaking note for an event held at the EU Delegation on January 15. The event was ‘off the record’, to foster real debate as it did, but I do not mind publishing my own speech, in ‘Chatham House’ style. I heard some variety of views in Washington, from trade experts and journalist, and nothing changing mine entirely.

Editors at EurActiv and myself are also available for press comments, or informal remarks, on the topic. EurActiv’s trade and society section has become – to my knowledge – the leading source of information on the topic, and is open to quotes and retakes by others.



Thank you, Ambassador David O’Sullivan, for hosting this event at the EU Delegation.

This Rendez-Vous, as you call your series of events with visiting ‘leaders’, is very timely.

Nearly 100 people registered for this debate, including more than 30 journalists, representing both American and European publications. This is probably more media interest than such an event would attract in Brussels. It shows both that there is more interest in trade policy than people assume, and also that media resources in Washington are greater.

I will try to explain B) why the European public sphere is not really on board, and C) what could be done about it, on the media side.

A) Positioning: EurActiv is one of the platforms for open debate on trade

But first a few words on why I speak here in the context of trade relations:

  • I am not  a trade expert or senior diplomat, but a media entrepreneur, with some understanding of EU policy and of the European media landscape (on the latter: Fondation EurActiv actually coordinates some thinking on strengthening the EU’s media sector. See also #Media4EU)
  • Bringing TTIP to completion is a huge challenge; some might say an uphill battle. That’s the focus of my intervention. Before providing feed-back about others, and listening to your hints, let’s me start by saying what EurActiv does in this regard:
  • EurActiv is a policy media, and more specifically a media network, writing from 12 EU capitals in 12 languages.
  • So we observe first-hand the wide difference in political and public perceptions. Fair or not, Brussels is seen as part of an Anglo-Saxon sphere spreading from Belgium to DC via London and New York. My heavy French accent might mislead you into thinking that I am reluctant about trade or even markets and the USA? Not quite. By the way, a long time ago, I was a McKinsey consultant and then an EU competition official. And in fact, it’s not only the French and Southern Europeans that worry about TTIP, even some Germans these days, often for different reasons.
  • Two months ago, EurActiv opened a new policy section called ‘trade and society’. The title says it all: it’s not just about TTIP technicalities, but about pros and cons for civil society, and putting things in a more global perspective.  ‘Trade and society’ is already available in English, we hope to expand it at least in French and German, once we identify suitable support for that expansion.
  • Out of transparency, I’d like to thank for their support to this section AmCham EU and the Swedish Business Organisation. This being said, EurActiv doesn’t do advertorials or ‘native advertising’, as the US buzzword goes. We reflect all viewpoints of a debate that is controversial, hoping that engagement helps a constructive process.  [ We have a sponsorship based business model with a strict line on editorial independence. Policy makers and stakeholders appreciate our bringing to light the wide variety of views in the European policy space.] Some media try to be a dominant voice, EurActiv is chiefly stakeholder-oriented, supporting open debates.
  • Last week we published a dossier on ‘TTIP for dummies’, which David O’Sullivan immediately tweeted. Of course, nobody here needs to read it! But you would be surprised by how little people really know about TTIP, even among policy folks. There is a lot of interest in EurActiv policy articles and interviews, mainly reflecting the stakeholder debate.  .
  • EurActiv has its own views on media policy, the media landscape, and further innovations in store, but I should stop this introduction. I wish to learn from talks in Washington, or talk on the record if you wish.

B) Overall: neither the EU and US public spheres are on board. Despite good efforts.

First, let’s try to contrast the public opinions on both sides of the Atlantic, in a simplified way, with bullet points.

One fundamental point is in common: on both sides of the Atlantic fact-based analysis supports moving forward on a trade agreement.

In Europe:

  • general awareness (not real knowledge) is quite strong
  • civil society is reluctant on several aspects (notably food (GMO’s, Europeans don’t trust Americans to provide healthy food  (fear of Frankenstein foods and obesity), data protection and chiefly investment clauses: ISDS). There is, more generally, a fear of domination by US corporate interests.
  • media is reflecting civil society more than business
  • politicians and  business are largely committed but could be destabilized by the former. And this varies widely by country, for the North supportive to the South reluctant, with Germany hesitating in-between.

In the US:

  • awareness is poorer than in Europe. Washington is not representative, Brussels also not.
  • civil society has less strong views: fears of imports, not of domination. For example, while ISDS is a European invention, there has been more debate on investment policy since 10 years, so that leading NGOs are more familiar with the issue.
  • Business is rather in favour, when aware. States start to get involved, to support their own SMEs abroad.
  • Politicians are divided and the process could be derailed by a political game in the Congress. Seen from Europe, the US system seems simpler, but it is not.

2) Have the EU and governments learned lessons from the past?

There is some history of failed attempts to move forward, for example:

  • a long time ago, under Sir Leon Brittan who recently passed away, a ‘New Transatlantic Market’ was offered. It was before it’s time, based on little listening, therefore blocked in early stages
  • more recently, ACTA, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement: it went further along, but was eventually blocked in the European Parliament. Fairly or not, it was perceived a back door attempt to infringe people’s right, for example to make private copies of recordings. [It was stopped by sudden and very successful mass social media campaign bombarding MEP’s, who weren’t used to that – unlike in US, where such campaigning is much more common]
  • a somewhat related process, not regarding trade, but based on similar fears, and with similar anti-groups:  the attempt to have a European constitution, in 2005. With negative referenda in several countries, including David’s own, and mine.  Ten years later, we still suffer from this.

Every time, at every failed attempt, the EU progresses in terms of outreach and transparency. This time, after some criticism and a late start, communication is not perfect but much better in principle:

  • core documents finally get published, reducing fears, some would say paranoia (though  some NGO’s and some media are still characterizing negotiations as some secret plot between corporates and governments)
  • there are specific dialogues across the Atlantic: consumers, unions, business, legislators

In my view, four main things are missing in these talks: two on substance, two on process

  1. Conveying the big picture, Western economies getting more competitive, regaining the lead versus emerging economies, and helping to develop global policies. Plus the need to increase growth, especially in Europe. There are tons on studies on both points, but many people don’t make the connection between trading across the Atlantic and reducing imports from China, they see it as misguided openings, part of the same plot.  Also, Western values of freedom, democracy, human rights and justice are challenged by other systems, and transatlantic trade can support solidarity, not only competition.
  2. Some changes on substance, not just listening, and trying to ‘sell the package’. Or ‘pushing it down people’s throat’, as some observers would say. Promotion is not my role, but I believe flexibility needs to be shown. There are three main red flags:

    a. Investment protection and the use of private courts
    . My first instinct before EurActiv started this trade section was ‘drop the ‘I’ in TTIP’. Even though it’s in the Canada agreement. Now I’d say ‘modify the I’, at least. How? It’s not my role to comment! 

    [There are many ways of keeping the principles, to create momentum in future China dealings, while severely limiting recourse to private arbitration. For example – and not all business would find it sufficient: focus on exhaustion of legal remedies.]

    The Commission just published the results of a wide consultation. This is a complex issue, the lightning rod for a whole lot of other issues.

    b. Data protection, I’d call it by its German name Datenschutz. Two sub-points: privacy and spying.

    Individual privacy: Let me take a personal example: Why are my kids allowed on Facebook at age 13, and not 10 or 18? Because that’s what the US company decided with the US government, and it’s mentioned in pages and pages of legalese somewhere. Consent by clicking on some long document is not enough, from a European viewpoint.  This is handled in other pieces of legislation, but the public connect this strongly with US trade and investment matters. The main interaction of Europeans with America is with corporate brands, of course, and chiefly on the internet.
    Having social networks dominated and even regulated from the US is not reassuring, and has a negative effect in other areas. You recall French demands about the ‘exception culturelle’, which came to be accepted. Today’s popular culture is not films, but social media.
    The huge reactions were firstly about freedom of expression, freedom from the State or from religious diktat. In other words, putting freedom above risk prevention. NSA is not OK in Europe, probably also not quite in the US. EU legislators could speed up greatly security cooperation, but they will not quite sign a Patriot Act, be it European or transatlantic.

    Security versus spying. Of course recent terrorism will help explain cross border cooperation. By the way – and this is a French media man speaking – the reaction to the Charlie Hebdo tragedy has been great.  Also here in the US, including around us at the EU Delegation.

    c. Food regulation is also an issue. 
    Fears have only reduced a bit because EU governments have made categorical statements. TTIP won’t result in forcing GMO’s down people’s throats. Or lowering EU food standards and sacrificing EU food culture.

    These issues are likely to be decided at the end of negotiations, if at all, at a high level. Hopefully they will not derail the whole process before that.

    Now let’s come to my two recommendations regarding the process.

  3. Governments should take a view more clearly:I will be short on this one, where I can at most influence, and not act myself. Just a brief note on the political momentum.There is a mismatch between supportive Council of Ministers decision and very critical national debates. At national level, most governments are fairly supportive – with notable exceptions, but don’t make it an outreach priority.

    TTIP is one of the 10 priorities for the Junker Commission. Hopefully it will also feature in Obama’s upcoming State of the Union speech (subsequent edit: it did, via asking for Trade Promotion Authority, to forge ‘strong new trade deals from Asia to Europe’)

  4. Greater role to be played by media. Let me focus a few minutes on this point.


C)      Role of the media: creating trusted debates, scrutinize in a balanced way


I have eight suggestions, let me run through them quickly so we can then debate them. I welcome more specific ideas on all points during the debate, especially on the US side.

  1. Build awareness: quantity of reporting and other content, notably stakeholder views.
  2. Show nuances within civil society and business, not just between them. Scrutinize politicians and corporate, and also false claims by some NGOs.    Counter some prejudices, for example the idea that standards are always lower in the US than in Europe. Reflect a variety of stakeholders, not only the most vocal (‘anti’ NGOs) or the best funded (corporates, often more discreet !). For example, seek out notably the middle ground on TTIP: critical and varied but open civil society, like labour, consumer unions, etc.
  3. Bring the debate to national level. Not just translating, but looking at issues and solutions to national concerns. And raise awareness at EU level of critical national debates.
  4. Connect the debate between different EU countries. There are important translation and localization issues there. EurActiv is too unique, I’d love to have more competitors! Or indeed more partners. I could say more on this later…
  5. Connect the debate between Europe and the US. Even media people in Europe typically know fewer than 5 names of US politicians, and don’t recall what ‘AFL-CIO’ means (in fact, probably ‘ETUC’ also not). I guess it’s probably the same or worse in America? One way would be to use new visualization techniques, not the usual trade policy texts. [EurActiv is working with R&D funding on a new instrument called PolicyLine, mapping the decision process]
  6. Don’ t count on top down editorials.  It didn’t work during the EU constitution referenda: in most countries the press was in favour, but the blogosphere was in majority against. Top down talking to citizens doesn’t not work, it may actually back fire. What would reassure Europeans is to hear that there are somewhat critical NGOs and unions also in the US, therefore a potential for a reasonable outcome.
  7. Find original revenue models for such debate, obviously not limiting readership to those who can pay. So, either classical advertising, or sponsoring. Association or corporations that which to help the process may think of supporting open debate rather than pushing for their own views.
  8. Exchange content across borders, across the Atlantic. Either quoting each other or syndication (for free) or OpEds. This is of course up to editorial decisions. One can give it a frame: this may be my most practical offer to media colleagues here. We have content partnerships with other media, for example with The Guardian. And we’d be open to extend that to a few US media.

Let’s now debate.


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