3 Questions to Miguelángel Verde

m. verde - bio photoMiguelángel Verde Garrido was a speaker at the #FixEurope Campus. He is co-founder of the Berlin Forum on Global Politics (BFoGP), a non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of academic, expert, and public understanding of global politics. The BFoGP edited The Transatlantic Colossus, an international study on the free trade agreement currently being negotiated between the European Union and the United States (TAFTA | TTIP).

1. What are in your views the main grounds to mobilise against the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) trade agreements? Would it mainly endanger citizens’ rights on this side of the Atlantic? 

I want to start by answering the second question. Unless there is more oversight, accountability, and participation during the negotiation processes, TAFTA | TTIP will undoubtedly weaken citizen and consumer rights further, not only in Europe, but on both sides of the Atlantic. We should realize that: despite public outcry in the EU and the US (not only over TAFTA | TTIP, but over TPP and CETA as well); despite the unheeded public consultation in which more than 150000 European citizens expressed their concerns over ISDS mechanisms alongside numerous NGOs and CSOs; and, despite the attempt to organize an ECI on this transatlantic colossus; negotiations continue as opaque, secretive, and distanced from civil society as before.

Regarding the first question, we should remember that official statements declare that the negotiation of TAFTA | TTIP is something which is being done for EU and US citizens and businesses and. However, the negotiations themselves are not democratic, since citizens and consumers are not granted access to any of the processes by which they could contribute to the negotiations nor are they privy to their details. The democracy of any polity exists only inasmuch it acts democratically. The very fact that TAFTA | TTIP excludes citizens and consumers from democratic participation should be grounds enough to mobilize for inclusion within the processes themselves. And, were that not to be sufficient, the various leaked documents concerning the treaty provide other reasons to mobilize as well. On the one hand, we have evidence that trade authorities and corporations were debating and lobbying even before the negotiations officially started. On the other hand, we know that the European Commission recommended a communicational strategy to EU member states based on focusing mainstream media discourse and monitoring social media to deploy communicational counter-strategies to citizen and consumer concerns. And then, which interests me particularly, there is the refusal to clarify the ways in which the newly liberalized transatlantic flows of digital information that could result from the treaty may or may not be intercepted by global mass surveillance.

These are very serious and troubling matters: the desire to accommodate the wishes of corporate lobbying and their ad hoc arbitral courts, governmental strategies that attempt to undermine the political agency of civil society, and an unwillingness to confront contemporary global politics so that global economy and trade can grow without any purpose beyond growth itself … without a public debate, there are no reasons to expect that either citizens or consumers in the EU and the US will be those who benefit the most from TAFTA | TTIP.

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Photo: E. Dalibot

 2. The European Citizens’ Initiative against the TTIP has recently been rejected by the European Commission as “non receivable”, for questionable grounds. How do you interpret this rejection and what tools or channels can European citizens use to oppose the treaty?  

The European Commission’s rejection of the ECI is a regrettable decision, which in the years to come will be viewed shamefully, as yet another example of a worrying and intensifying political strategy: the intentional attrition of direct democratic processes. This has serious implications for our liberal democracies. Consider that the European Commission decided that EU citizens are only allowed to present “legislative proposals” after the “signature and conclusion of an international agreement”. In other words, civil society can only offer proposals once everything has already been said and done by those allowed to say and do so: states and corporations. The fact that a mere proposal, which does not even need to be adopted, was rejected from its very onset would seem to indicate that EU political representatives and their lobbyists have two fears. The first fear is that the treaty could come under more scrutiny. A proposal from a constructive and proactive part of civil society may lead other parts of it, more removed from the debate until now, to inspect it with more care, contrasting and comparing trade authorities’ proposals with that of EU citizens’. The second fear is that a successful ECI may establish yet another precedent for the participation of citizens in their politics – directly, and not merely by means of political representatives. Democratic participation leads to transparency and accountability, which prevents corporations and their EU political representatives from strictly controlling every level of the bilateral negotiations that are increasingly reframing not only global trade, but the its impact on the environment, international mobility, the quality of food as well as rights to healthcare and medicine, information, among many other goods and services.

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These fears can be understood as rooted in a profound contempt for a more direct democratic participation of civil society in matters that directly affect their lives. For that very same reason, the most important tools that we have at our disposal are the sharing of reliable and accesible information and the strengthening of the communities and networks that we build and develop every day. The European Day of Action against TTIP and CETA (#O11DoA) was successful not only because close to 400 activist groups in 21 countries marched across Europe, but also because they did so in a glocalized way: local communities and networks were united with other communities and networks in a common and transnational effort to clarify what TAFTA | TTIP could imply. The French expressed their concern about the environment and GMOs, the German about their states’ political autonomy, the British about healthcare. People in countries throughout Europe voiced their concerns about how the treaty may affect them locally, but did so in a way in which they did not drown out the voices of other people in other countries but, more significantly, made them louder as a whole. There were, so to say, national voices that also became a united European voice. This, from a strategic standpoint, is quite remarkable: not only European political representatives, but also national political representatives, should listen very carefully to what their electorate is saying. The dismissal of direct democracy has, in the end, the most serious of consequences for those that make their living out of representational democracy, especially when the next elections come about.

3. What’s the most pressing issue to fix in Europe today?

Without any doubt, democracy. The refusal of the ECI was grounded on the basis of an interpretation, since the European Commission claimed that negotiating mandates are not “legal acts”, but “preparatory acts”. That is risible for the mere fact that, if it were true, only the signing of a treaty is a legal act. Furthermore, if that were the case, it implies that the only spontaneous and direct expression of democracy allowed to EU citizens is the opportunity to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to whatever conclusion others have decided, but never to actually speak for themselves and their interests and concerns, never to debate with, criticize, or offer proposals to their political representatives, never to contribute directly to their societies’ most important debates – no matter that myriad areas of expertise and experience, practical, academic, everyday, expert, and technical, are possessed by millions upon millions of EU citizens.

There are certainly a number of specific and very tangible issues within Europe nowadays, that span from austerity policies to poverty to human rights to violence and abuse to discrimination to education to the very threat of war, and these are very serious issues, which need to be addressed with urgency. And yet, underlying every dissatisfied claim is the reality that the reason why these claims are not dealt with seriously or urgently enough is that democracy continues more along the lines of representation than that of participation. Worryingly, what this could mean is that we can only mutter ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the decided upon ways by which to attend to our most pressing concerns. Even more worryingly, what this could mean is that we should never dream about offering alternatives concerning how to actually fix them.