BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union is seeking to contain a new complaint that a trade deal with the United States would undermine Europe’s protection against dangerous chemicals, eager to avoid another front of resistance to the world’s biggest trade accord.
More than a year into negotiations, the European Commission, the EU executive, is engaged in a public relations battle to defend plans to deepen the transatlantic trading relationship and create a market of some 800 million people encompassing almost half the world’s economy.
In a letter seen by Reuters, the EU’s trade chief will tell environmental activists on Friday that a free-trade pact between the top two trading blocs will not expose Europeans to harmful chemicals or force the EU to change its laws.
Under EU rules, chemicals must be proved to be safe before they are used. In the United States, chemicals must be shown to be harmful to be banned.
Some European public safety and environmental groups say a trade deal with the United States would allow U.S. companies to import chemicals considered toxic or dangerous in Europe.
“A possible agreement would under no circumstances result in the lowering of existing EU environmental and health standards with regard to chemicals,” EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht wrote, referring to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP, which is under negotiation.
“TTIP will have no chilling effect on the implementation of existing EU chemicals regulations,” the letter said.
Parties hope an EU-U.S. free-trade deal, which could generate $100 billion a year for both the EU and the United States, can be clinched next year.
One of the main economic gains is through streamlining regulation, but EU and U.S. rules on chemicals are an example of very different positions where another approach must be found.
Negotiators, who concluded the seventh round of TTIP talks on Friday, said there was never any intention to adopt common regulations on chemicals, and officials were looking at practical ways for regulators to work together.
“They are discussing how regulators on both sides can avoid unnecessary duplication of effort and cost by sharing the work of assessing priority chemicals,” chief U.S. negotiator Dan Mullaney told a news conference in Washington.
His EU counterpart, Ignacio Garcia-Bercero, said harmonization and mutual recognition of regulations on chemicals were “absolutely off the table.”
Within the trade deal, the European Union aims only to better classify and label chemicals, share data on chemicals more effectively and protect confidential business information to make systems more efficient and cut bureaucracy and costs.
One group of campaigners, ClientEarth, said on its website this week that a leaked document from the trade negotiations signaled that the public’s concerns were not being heeded.
“The European Union is giving the United States a chance to block any initiative to protect EU citizens and the environment from the risk of toxic chemicals,” said Vito Buonsante, an advisor at ClientEarth, which specializes in environmental litigation and research.
Until now, much of the criticism of the EU-U.S. trade deal has focused on the pact’s “Investor-State Dispute Settlement” clause that would allow companies to take cross-border legal action against governments if they breach the trade treaty.
Germany’s Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel opposes the inclusion in trade deals of provisions to protect investors and unions say it gives multinationals too much power and could undermine laws on labor, the environment or food standards.
A public consultation on the issue in the European Union received an unprecedented 149,399 submissions and the Commision, which handles trade on behalf the EU’s 28 countries, is expected to comment next month.
Garcia-Bercero said nothing in the pact would endanger the environment, consumers or any other public policy goal.
Additional reporting by Krista Hughes in Washington; Editing by Robin Pomeroy and Gunna Dickson