EU court says there is nothing wrong allowing business lobbies to get documents denied to parliamentarians and public interest groups
The European Union’s judiciary has dealt a stinging blow to hopes of making trade negotiations between the EU and India open to public scrutiny. The EU’s General Court in Luxembourg concluded on Friday that the European Commission did not violate rules when it gave powerful corporate lobbies access to documents related to the EU-India free trade agreement (FTA) but withheld it from civil society organisations.
Trade negotiations between Brussels and New Delhi started in 2007 but have been shrouded in secrecy barring some leaked documents that are purported to be the text under discussion. The comprehensive FTA — it is officially known as the bilateral trade and investment agreement – covers trade in goods and services besides rules pertaining to cross-border investments, competition policy, government procurement and state aid. There have been widespread concerns about its implications on access to medicines, livelihoods of Indian farmers and on public sector banks in India. The worry that patent stipulations in the FTA would result in restrictions on the manufacture of generics in India has sparked worldwide protests by health activists who fear that supply of low-cost medications to poor countries would be cut off.
At the crux of the legal suit are 17 documents related to the ongoing EU-India free trade negotiations. While the Commission shared these documents with corporate lobby groups such as BusinessEurope, an association of 41 central industrial and employers’ federations from 35 countries, it refused to do so with lobby watchdog Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO). The latter was given only censored versions, with information about priorities, tactics and strategies in the negotiations deleted from the documents. The Commission had justified the censorship on the grounds that the deleted information was 'sensitive' since it concerned EU priorities and strategies in the negotiations.
The Brussels-based CEO then filed a lawsuit in February 2011 accusing the Commission of discriminating in favour of corporate lobby groups and of violating the EU’s transparency rules. CEO had said at the time that it was a measure of last resort. At an oral hearing in the Luxembourg court in January this year, the commission had reiterated that public disclosure would undermine the EU’s international relations and in particular, the ongoing negotiations for an EU-India FTA.
For its part, CEO had warned that such a practice “not only hampers well-informed and meaningful public participation in EU trade policy-making, it also leads to a trade policy that, while catering for big business needs, is harmful to people and the environment in the EU and the world”.
But on Saturday (June 7), the Luxembourg court said the Commission had violated no EU rules while granting business privileged access to the trade negotiation documents. The decision came just as India and the EU are in the final lap of negotiations. In New Delhi, Commerce Secretary S R Rao was telling reporters that “a small gap” is posing problems for conclusion of the FTA. He was quoted by news agency PTI as saying: “All I can say is we are extremely close to the finalisation, but a small gap is also becoming very difficult.”
In an immediate reaction to the court ruling, CEO trade campaigner Pia Eberhardt said: “There is a big risk that the Commission will see the court ruling as a green light to continue to develop its trade policy behind closed doors, together with, and for, a tiny elite of corporate lobby groups. The result is a trade policy that caters for big business needs, but works against the interests of the bulk of the population in the EU and other parts of the world.”
In India, parliamentarians have also called for a review of the negotiations and said the EU-India FTA should not be signed just now. They join a number of public interest groups that have long been warning about the risks posed by this far-reaching trade pact with one of the world’s largest trade blocs. Reflecting these concerns, Eberhardt said “it is high time that the Commission stops handing over the negotiating agenda to multinational companies. It is disappointing that the court ruling seems to point in exactly the opposite direction”.
CEO has a little over two months to file an appeal and is mulling its options.
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