EU's Malmstroem pleads for support in US trade deal fight

Alex Pigman and Aurelie Mayembo
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European Union Commissioner for Trade Cecilia Malmstroem during an AFP interview in Brussels on April 20, 2015

The EU's top trade official urged European governments to "do more" to defend a controversial free trade deal between the US and European Union that has faced fierce hostility in key countries, especially Germany.

Sweden's Cecilia Malmstroem, the EU's outspoken trade commissioner, is faced with the immense task of giving life to the so called Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP, as a new round of talks -- the ninth since last year -- begins in New York on Monday.

"The member states should do more, because this is not my project, it's not my TTIP," Malmstroem told AFP in an interview two days after tens of thousands of protesters marched in European cities railing a project they see as a sop to US multinationals and a greedy business lobby.

"It's not just up to me to sell it, it is not my project, I work night and day ... but member states, governments, ministers and parliaments must contribute," Malmstroem said in her office high up in the commission headquarters that overlooks the heart of the European capital.

If concluded, TTIP would be the biggest trade deal ever concluded, linking about 60 percent of the world's economic output in a colossal market of 850 million consumers, creating a free trade corridor from Hawaii to Lithuania.

-- 'Anti-Americanism' --

Malmstroem took on the trade portfolio in November and has since painstakingly defended TTIP to a dubious Europe, often braving an extremely loud and persistent opposition, much of it through social media.

"There's an anti-globalisation wave, some countries are caught in a feeling of anti-Americanism, especially after Snowden," the commissioner said.

According to polls, recent revelations by security contractor Edward Snowden of US spying, including the tapping of Chancellor Angela Merkel's mobile phone, have fuelled anti-US sentiment in Germany, but Luxembourg and Austria as well.

"All this enters the debate, but it surprises me a bit that the resistance is so strong in a country like Germany, where the benefits will be the greatest," Malmstroem said.

"The opposition is very vocal, but the silent majority is not in the streets," she added, hoping that support in Europe would grow as a final deal drew closer.

The most controversial element of TTIP is a plan to let companies have legal disputes with governments heard by supra-national tribunals, which campaigners say would undermine national sovereignty and favour big business.

The so-called investor-state dispute settlement, or ISDS, allows firms to sue national governments if they feel that local rulings -- such as health and safety regulations -- violate the trade deal and threaten their investments.

The courts are a critical issue for US negotiators, who underline that these types of panels have existed for decades and are already included in thousands of trade deals worldwide, including about 400 in Europe.

-- 'Opportunity for abuse' --

But activist-led resistance to the courts has been huge and Malmstroem said change was needed.

"The system needs to be reformed, because when it was created (in the 1950's) the focus was more on companies than on a government's right to regulate," she said.

This leaves an "opportunity for abuse that could put a government's right to protect its citizens into question."

In face of the anger, Malmstroem said the EU would use this moment "to see whether we can establish a new more modern system," she said.

"Will ISDS be in the final deal with the Americans? We'll see," she said.

In some ways, the negotiation for TTIP shouldn't be so difficult, Malmstroem said.

"Today, we already are exchanging services, products every second with the United States," she said.

"This is our biggest partner. Thousands of jobs in Europe depend on it already."

But Malmstroem dampened expectations of any breakthroughs at the week-long talks in New York, nor at a tenth round expected in July.

"We agreed with the Americans... that things will remain very technical before entering a more political phase after the summer," she said.

Malmstroem ruled out a deal by the end of the year, but hoped the two sides could achieve a "skeleton" of the final deal.