* Groups concerned about impact on government health, safety
* Some see pact as "backdoor" attempt to weaken EU privacy
By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON, May 29 U.S. consumer groups raised
concerns on Wednesday about a proposed free trade agreement
between the United States and the European Union, which they
said could weaken government health, environmental and food
safety regulations and undermine privacy on the Internet.
With negotiations on what would be the world's largest free
trade pact set to begin in July, a U.S. government panel led by
the Trade Representative's office began two days of hearings to
help finalize its goals for the proposed Transatlantic Trade and
Investment Partnership, or TTIP.
It was slated to hear from 62 witnesses on issues including
food safety, financial services, global supply chains and
cross-border electronic data flows before finishing on Thursday.
Since tariffs between the United States and the EU are
relatively low, the most difficult part of the upcoming talks
will be reducing regulatory and other "behind-the-border"
barriers that impede trade in sectors ranging from agriculture
to chemicals to autos to finance.
That worries consumer groups such as Public Citizen, which
says the United States and the EU have different regulations
because the concerns of their citizens are not the same. For
example, EU consumers have voiced stronger objections to
genetically modified food than their U.S. counterparts.
"Trying to eliminate a big swath of regulatory differences
via a trade deal would have a democratic cost because you're
taking away a power from the electorate," said Ben Beachy,
research director at Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch.
Henry Jasny, vice president of Advocates for Highway and
Auto Safety, a coalition of consumer groups and insurance
companies, said he feared the talks on reducing regulatory
barriers in the auto sector could lead to a weakening of vehicle
safety standards across the Atlantic.
"In light of global concern about rising motor vehicle
crashes and fatalities, placing any downward pressure on vehicle
safety standards through bilateral trade agreements is
inappropriate," Jasny said.
Meanwhile, U.S. plans to ease the movement of electronic
data across borders have alarmed Internet activists, who see
that push as a "backdoor way" for U.S. companies such as Google
Inc. and Facebook Inc. to get around EU privacy
rules that have restricted their businesses in Europe.
"We've made it very clear that we're not to give up privacy
for the sake of a few digital dollars," said Jeff Chester,
executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy.
The Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue, which includes consumer
groups on both sides of Atlantic, also has urged the two sides
to tread carefully in talks on financial services, an area that
EU member Britain is especially keen to pursue to bolster the
position of London as a major world financial center.
"It is essential that consumer protection measures, many of
which are still under development in response to the collapse
and rescue of major portions of the banking system, should not
be pre-empted by this agreement," the group said in a brief
filed ahead of the hearing.
That argument appears to be carrying the day, despite a push
from U.S. financial services companies to be in the talks.
"We are concerned that U.S. authorities appear reluctant to
embrace the regulatory cooperation elements of the TTIP for
financial services, despite the fact that they will likely be
extended to virtually every other sector of the economy," Ken
Bentsen, president of the Securities Industry and Financial
Markets Association, told the panel.
Meanwhile, other groups hoped to use the hearing to push
their special concerns onto the U.S.-EU negotiating agenda.
Oceana, an international ocean conservation group, wants the
two sides to limit subsidies that promote overfishing and reduce
illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing around the globe.
Together, the U.S. and the EU account for slightly more than
16 percent of the global catch by weight and are in the top five
importers and exporters worldwide.
"If you can fix a problem in those two (economies), it makes
a huge difference," said Jackie Savitz, a deputy vice president
at the conservation group. "This presents a chance to say 'All
right, what do we want to do about fisheries issues?'"