TTIP: Safeguarding economic prospects and consumer protection
BMEL workshop provides a platform for information and discussion on the free trade agreement -Schmidt: "The level of consumer protection that we have is not a matter that is open to negotiation"
Christian Schmidt, the Federal Minister of Food and Agriculture, is endeavouring to conclude a free trade agreement with the U.S.A. that will open up export opportunities without eroding the level of consumer protection that exists in Germany. "I do not see any reason why we shouldn't succeed in safeguarding both economic prospects and consumer protection," said Minister Schmidt in Berlin.
"The elimination of trade barriers can open up new prospects for both the economy and consumers. This is subject to the proviso that our achievements in the field of food security are not put at stake." He emphasized that, after all, it was the high quality and preventive consumer protection across all processing stages that made European products export hits.
The BMEL issued an invitation to a workshop on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the EU and the U.S.A. (TTIP). With representatives from the European Commission and the U.S.A. present, approximately 70 participants from politics, business, media and associations had the opportunity to gain first-hand information on the negotiations and to learn more about the standards of protection in the U.S.A. and in Europe. The negotiations on a European-American free trade agreement have been ongoing since July 2013. The 7th round of negotiations was held from 29 September 2014 to 3 October 2014 in the U.S.A. It is intended to conclude the negotiations by the end of 2015.
In his welcoming address, Minister Schmidt emphasized that he took seriously consumer fears that TTIP could water down Europe's food-safety standards and undermine consumers' need for information. He asserted: "This is not open to negotiation". "Our utmost priority is the safety and quality of the products. Everybody exporting food to Europe needs to comply with our European standards for food production; this is the situation now and it will remain so in the future." He stated that, as chief negotiator, the European Commission did not have the mandate to renegotiate these standards.
Germany strongly supports maintaining the European level of consumer protection level and the regulatory sovereignty of the Member States and the EU. According to this principle, each contracting party can determine its level of consumer protection itself, even after the agreement has been concluded. "It will remain the case that each Member State in Europe can decide independently, for instance on issues such as the cultivation of GM maize," Minister Schmidt said. At the same time he stressed: "When comparing the governmental rules in force we should not pretend that food safety in the U.S. is exposed to the free play of market forces. Some of their provisions are even stricter than ours. The U.S. also pursues the goal of guaranteeing the best possible protection for their consumers' health; yet their way to achieve this is different."
Against this backdrop, Minister Schmidt pushed for a more objective debate. He stated that a laissez-faire attitude was just as inappropriate as scaremongering. "Currently, the planned agreement is surrounded by myths about inadequate standards and threats to rural farming by international trade. This debate urgently requires facts to make it more objective," Minister Schmidt said. He added: "Rural farms in Germany can produce successfully for both the weekly market and the world market."
By concluding a free trade agreement with the U.S., the BMEL hopes to open up new opportunities for the agri-food industry that will secure value creation and employment in rural regions. "Currently, U.S. American import duties for agricultural products and foods amount to some 5 percent. The average tariff for milk products is even 23 percent. This means that many business deals are not very profitable," Minister Schmidt explained. Consumers, too, could benefit from a greater diversity and consumer-friendly prices. "If you are afraid of regulated competition, you have already lost," Minister Schmidt said. Following Russia and Switzerland, the U.S. is the third most important third-country market for the agri-food industry in Germany. In 2012, German exports of goods from the agri-food industry to the U.S. amounted to approximately EUR 1.6 billion.
The Minister considers it deplorable that in sections of the public the chlorine-washed chicken has become synonymous with TTIP. "Obviously the efforts to establish the basis for an objective debate at an early stage have not been successful." I am delighted that finally we were able to agree on publishing the mandate in the Council. The Commission did not disclose it until last week. This was a necessary step in order to facilitate transparency and participation. Germany had advocated more transparency in the TTIP negotiations from the start.
Minister Schmidt's view is that a free trade agreement between the EU and the U.S. can only be successful if it finds wide support among the public on both sides of the Atlantic. "If the public is to accept this agreement, it is necessary to create as much transparency as possible. Communication between the trading partners that aims at information and transparency could dissipate a number of concerns," Minister Schmidt said. "We need to convince people that American legislation also wants to safeguard consumer protection, but that every country needs to decide for itself which rules it adopts to protect its citizens." With today's workshop, the BMEL made a contribution towards achieving this goal.