Dealmaking with the United States could cost the European Union its environmental and public health standards, according to leaked documents obtained by Greenpeace.
Last week, US and EU diplomats met in Manhattan for the 13th round of talks on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). The aim of the proposed deal is to facilitate the sale of goods and services between the US and the EU's 28 member nations, which collectively account for 40 percent of the world's Gross Domestic Product and more than 800 million consumers.
According to the leaked documents, which were analyzed and verified by the same group of German investigative reporters involved in the Panama Papers leak, diplomats are working to close seemingly irreconcilable gaps between US and EU regulatory standards — such as the types of chemicals that are safe to use on crops, rules on genetically-modified organisms (commonly known as GMOs), and policies on using animals to test cosmetic products. Rather than seeking a compromise, documents show both sides are working towards a "mutual recognition" treaty.
The EU's chemical regulations are far more stringent than ones in the US, which means that, under a mutual recognition agreement, a company could choose to manufacture cosmetics under US regulations, using chemicals that are banned in the EU and then sell those products to European consumers.
The European Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom told AFP that the documents do "not reflect the result of negotiations."
"No EU trade agreement will lower our level of consumer protection, food safety or environmental protection," she said.
In Europe, critics of the TTIP have been very concerned about the secrecy surrounding the closed-door negotiations.
In October 2014, the EU published the previously secret TTIP "negotiating mandate" — the directives followed by European negotiators — after it was leaked online. And in August 2015, Wikileaks offered a 100,000 euro ($113,000) bounty to anyone who could provide the public with the latest version of the deal.
"What we're hoping to do by making these documents public, is to initiate a public debate that never took place because the negotiations take place behind closed doors," said Jean-François Julliard, executive director of Greenpeace France. "If the agreement is signed one day, it will impact our daily lives. We are inviting organizations, experts, even political leaders, who previously had no access to these documents, to read them and make up their own minds."
If the current TTIP proposals move forward, it could undermine a 70-year-old tenet of the EU that allows member states to restrict trade in order to "protect human, animal and plant life or health" for the "conservation of exhaustible natural resources."
"We now have a picture of where [the TTIP] is after almost three years of negotiation," said Jorgo Riss, the director of Greenpeace EU. "There are no red lines which would clearly protect environment and health. Nothing to suggest either side could agree on higher standards. No reflection of the Paris climate change agreement."
Some EU critics who are wary of the deal are particularly concerned by the prospect of slipping food safety standards, which could open the door to hormone-treated beef and chickens washed with chlorine.
"There is a real risk that the standards will evolve. The American negotiations want to weaken European standards," said Nicolas Roux, a spokesperson for environmental group Amis de la Terre (Friends of the Earth), who spoke to VICE News before the publication of the EC's response. "The principle of regulatory cooperation aims to harmonize standards between the US and Europe, and gives a fairly big platform for large multinational companies and their lobbies. Every time a new product is authorized in the US — for example, GMO salmon — there will be pressure for it to be introduced to Europe."
"European countries have enjoyed relatively good safeguards to protect citizens and nature against environmental threats like toxic pollution or chemical contamination," Greenpeace said in a statement. "TTIP negotiations are effectively opening up a race to the bottom in the name of free trade."
'TTIP negotiations are effectively opening up a race to the bottom in the name of free trade.'
One of the areas where the EU and the US differ is pesticides. An analysis by the Center for International Environmental Law, a Washington-based advocacy group, found 82 pesticides which are allowed in the US but banned or restricted in Europe.
For example, Atrazine is the most commonly used herbicide in the US, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Atrazine is produced by Sygenta, a Swiss chemicals company, and was banned in the EU in 2003 because of concerns about its "long term persistence in the environment, together with toxicity for wildlife and possible link to effects on human health." Tyrone Hayes, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, found that atrazine chemically castrates male frogs.
Rather than harmonize the two parties' regulatory standards, the US is proposing to refer all disagreements over pesticides and food safety to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization's "Codex Alimentarius Commission" system, which is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland.
The World Trade Organization uses Codex guidelines as its benchmark to adjudicate trade disputes involving food and pesticide matters. Codex helps set global limits for pesticide residues, including the amount of pesticide that can safely be applied to food crops.
Referring disagreements to Codex doesn't sit well with some environmentalists, however, who contend that it's overrun by corporate money and interests. For example, an employee of Nestle sits on Codex's Swiss delegation. Representatives from Coca-Cola and CropLife, America (an organization representing the interests of chemical manufacturers) also sit on the US delegation.
Greenpeace says that about 44 percent of Codex's decisions on pesticide residues have been less stringent than EU ones, compared to 40 percent that were roughly equivalent and 16 percent that were more demanding. Riss described Codex as a "much more lax body" than the European Commission.
The impact of the TTIP on European pesticide regulations has long been a source of concern for environmentalists. Last year, documents obtained by the Pesticides Action Network (PAN) in Europe found that the EU plans to regulate chemicals linked to cancer and male infertility were discarded after pressure from US trade officials during TTIP negotiations.
Cosmetics are another major roadblock. "Discussions on cosmetics remain very difficult and the scope of common objectives fairly limited," an internal note states, adding that the European ban on testing cosmetic products on animals means that the "EU and the US approaches remain irreconcilable and EU market access problems will therefore remain."
Beyond the myriad environmental concerns cited by critics of the deal, there is another issue at stake — a cultural one. The idea of basically merging American and European agricultural systems doesn't sit well with many on the other side of the Atlantic.
"The US think in the opposite way to us, it's a different way of thinking," said Didier Montet, who runs a food safety lab at the Center for International Cooperation on Agronomic Research (CIRAD). "For example, the US only accept pasteurized cheese. But in France, cheese is considered a traditional product."
"Europe and the US share many similar standards," said Montet. "The nuances are mostly on psychological issues, such as GMO. If we could start by reaching an agreement in Europe, that would be something."
Additional reporting by Solenn Sugier
Follow Tess Owen on Twitter: @misstessowen