The controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership could finally be agreed in 2016. But will it mark a decline in pig meat standards in Europe?
After seemingly endless rounds of debate, 2016 could be the year the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the United States and Europe takes a significant step towards becoming a reality.
It’s an agreement that is supposed to create trade opportunities between the US and the 28 countries that make up the European Union, bringing benefits to economies on both sides of the Atlantic.
But despite the potential positives, for many European farmers, producer organizations and animal welfare groups, TTIP has so far brought little more than concern.
Over a decade in the making, the TTIP is a deal that aims to remove tariffs and trade barriers between the US and the European Union.
The idea is it will create the world’s largest free-trade zone, encompassing some 800 million consumers and bringing $134 billion (€146 billion) to Europe’s economy and $107 billion (€116 billion) to the US economy every year.
However, creating closer market links requires harmonization between the two markets, which is where the controversy lies.
Harmony and discord
The fear is that by harmonizing market rules — a process known as “equivalence” — important regulations, particularly around animal welfare and food safety, could get significantly watered-down.
It has so far proven to be one of the major sticking points in the negotiations, and one that campaigners fear will have the biggest impact on animal welfare, according to policy advisor James Mills of the British Agriculture Bureau, Brussels.
There are a number of significant differences in pig production between the US and the EU (see panel), and finding a way to reconcile them has so far proved a challenge, he says.
“On the pig side of things, there are lots of issues around sow stalls, the use of growth promoters and the impact that any trade agreement could have on bringing US product into Europe,” Mills adds.
A ‘vexed question’
Producer and consumer groups are concerned that while EU pig farmers have to work under strict regulations — which often add additional costs to producers’ already fragile margins — under TTIP US producers will have free reign to flood the market with cheaper products produced to less stringent welfare standards.
As a result, even more of Europe’s producers could be forced out of business as their costlier produce fails to find a market.
“The European Commission says that standards won’t be reduced, but somewhere along the line they will need to negotiate,” Mills adds. “Some of our biggest concerns are around equivalent standards and whether EU negotiators decide to push for them or choose to forget them.”
Scottish Member of European Parliament and agriculture committee member Alan Smith says while there are currently no plans by officials to change or lower EU standards, there is wide agreement that equivalence is “highly problematic” for Europe.
“This will indirectly lower standards just as surely as reducing the standards directly,” he says.
“Equivalence of standards is a vexed question which has already crossed our radar over Brazilian beef imports.
“Even within the EU’s internal borders we have still not got it right, with some member states dragging their feet over enriched cages for chickens in Poland, and indeed sow stalls in Denmark.
“But this is something our consumers expect us to get right, and for us to spend as much time, energy and money on ensuring high animal welfare standards in Europe to see them traded away in these negotiations would be destructive in my view of the package as a whole.”
However, despite the arguments of farming groups and welfare campaigners, other industry experts say fears around changes to pig welfare policies are so far unfounded.
Speaking earlier in 2015, Martin Banse of German rural research centre the Thünen Institute said the negotiations were stuck around philosophies of food safety, rather than whether one side really has higher standards than the other.
“[Ultimately] EU and US policy makers have a completely different mindset on how food safety is achieved, with the precautionary approach given due consideration in the EU,” he told animal feed industry website feednavigator.com.
And Dominic Watkins of UK business law firm DWF, who advises businesses on the potential impacts of the trade agreement, says not enough is known yet about TTIP to warrant quite so much concern.
“It is potentially a huge opportunity. At the moment [in the EU] we have a trade surplus and the expectation is if we work to remove barriers it could increase trade by 40% – although that benefit could be felt mostly by the US.
“It’s the other things that will actually provide growth opportunities [for EU producers]: Removal of red tape and tax benefits for starters.”
Until the detail of the agreement is revealed – which probably won’t be until the first or second quarter of 2016 – those concerned about what impact TTIP could have on the European pig sector can still have their voices heard and be engaged in the negotiation process, Watkins adds.
“The EU has an open-door policy and wants to hear what the issues are for the industry. TTIP won’t be agreed for a while, so there is still time for those who want to have their say.”
What is TTIP?
The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is a deal which aims to remove tariffs and barriers to trade between the United States and the European Union, making it easier to access each other’s markets.
First proposed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2006 in response to the collapse of the Doha world trade talks, the partnership would see regulations between the EU and the US harmonized in areas ranging from food safety law to environmental rules and banking regulations.
It would mean that, for example, cars made in Britain could be sold in the US, giving manufacturers access to larger markets and consumers greater access to different products.
The EU says TTIP could bring $134bn to Europe’s economy and $107bn to the US economy every year.