An Urban's Rural View

Tough Talk From Tom on TTIP

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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There are times when who said something is as important as what's said. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack's November 30 speech to European farm groups in Brussels is an example.

The secretary used the occasion to issue a none-too-subtle warning about the progress of negotiations over a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. TTIP, as the hoped-for trade deal is shorthanded, is an acronym only a trade negotiator could love. Vilsack reminded Europe that a TTIP agreement won't fly if American farmers don't love it.

To win Congressional approval, the secretary advised, a TTIP deal would have to provide real access to the European market for U.S. farm exports. He specifically mentioned genetically engineered products and hormone-treated beef.

Judging from Reuters' account of his remarks, the secretary did not equivocate. Without gains for U.S. exports, he said, American farm groups would oppose TTIP. "The agricultural interests in the United States, by themselves, are not politically powerful enough to get an agreement passed," he explained, "but they are certainly powerful enough to stop an agreement that's been negotiated (…)."

European Union negotiators have no doubt heard this message before from their American counterparts. If they had any doubts, European representatives in Washington have certainly heard similar things from U.S. ag groups. Still, it's easy for the message to get lost in the noise of negotiations. When a cabinet official says it, on the record, in blunt language, directly to the competing interest groups on the other side, it takes on the aura of policy.

Vilsack's statement tightens the squeeze on EU negotiators. They're beset on one side by protestors who have taken to the streets of Europe to decry any TTIP compromise on genetically engineered food (…). Now, on the other side, Secretary Vilsack is warning publicly that without compromise, Congress won't buy a TTIP deal.

Europe's farmers, to be sure, have their own TTIP demands. They want the U.S. to observe European rules on food place names. Under these rules, only ham produced in Germany's Black Forest may be labeled Black Forest Ham; only meat produced in Bologna, Italy, may be called Bologna. In a post last year headlined "Walk a Mile in the Europeans' Shoes -- Or Maybe a Half-Mile" (…), I argued both sides have a point on this issue; compromise might be possible.

It is hard, though, to compromise on Europe's issues if Europe refuses to discuss ours. That's what appears to be happening in the TTIP talks. No one who isn't at the table can say for sure what is being debated there, of course, but if EU negotiators are discussing U.S. ag demands behind closed doors, they're deceiving their constituents with public assurances that they're not. Here are some examples.

--The EU's website says hormone-fed beef is "banned" and TTIP "will not change" that -- end of story.

--The EU website says, "The EU basic law on GMOs -- including the European Food Safety Authority's (EFSA) safety assessment and the risk management procedure -- is not up for negotiation."

--In a general reference to "standards that protect people and the environment," the website says, "In the EU, independent regulators advise governments on how strict these standards should be, based on the latest scientific research. TTIP will safeguard these standards, and governments' right in the future to set them as high as they wish (…)."

When nations have discussed liberalizing trade in the past, agriculture has usually been among the knottiest issues. More than once, the deal reached has substantially lowered barriers to trade in manufactured goods or services while lowering ag-trade barriers much less. It will be interesting to see whether that happens this time.

EU negotiators find America's demands difficult and tricky. They probably prefer to dismiss the secretary's warning as bluff. That would be risky on their part. History doesn't always repeat itself. There's ample reason to think Vilsack is right in saying, "If we don't address these difficult, tricky issues ... decide not to deal with them because they are too hard, then in my view you are not going to have a TTIP agreement."

Urban Lehner



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