Trade

Juncker addresses the European Parliament before the vote approving his new Commission

It started out as an internecine turf war within the incoming regime of Jean-Claude Juncker. But it is quickly metastasising into what could be one of the first international policy fights of the Juncker Commission.

The dispute centres on a previously obscure trade arbitration system that allows companies that believe they can’t get a fair hearing in front of national courts to appeal to an international dispute resolution panel known as ISDS, for investor-state dispute settlement.

The systems have become relatively commonplace in international investment treaties, but they suddenly – and to the surprise of many advocates – have become the single biggest bone of contention among opponents of the world’s biggest trade deal, the pact currently being negotiated between the US and EU.

Opposition from social democrats in Germany, the country where ISDS was ironically invented, has put ISDS on the front-burner politically, and Juncker – urged on, officials say, by his powerful chief of staff, German lawyer Martin Selmayr – has clearly sided with the sceptics. The stance has led to an open confrontation with Cecilia Malmström, his incoming trade commissioner who supported a similar ISDS system in the just-completed EU trade deal with Canada.

But as we reported in today’s dead-tree edition of the FT, free-trading countries are fighting back. A letter signed by ministers from 14 member states – including Britain, Spain, Portugal, Sweden and the Czech Republic – pointedly reminds Juncker that ISDS was included in the negotiating mandate that all 27 member states gave to the Commission last year. We’ve posted a copy of the letter here

Malmstrom makes a point during her unexpectedly contentious hearing on Monday

It is rare that an obscure bit of international trade arcana turns into a major political kafuffle, but that’s just what appears to have happened on Monday over a relatively obscure arbitration system proposed for a new EU-US trade pact.

Although there is much substance behind the dispute, what really has Brussels insiders buzzing is the role played by Martin Selmayr, the increasingly powerful head of Jean-Claude Juncker’s transition team.

According to several EU officials, Selmayr – a workaholic German lawyer who is expected to become Juncker’s chief of staff when the Luxembourger assumes the European Commission presidency – changed the written testimony of Cecilia Malmström, the incoming trade commissioner, before it was submitted to the European parliament without her knowledge.

Dutch Liberal Marietje Schaake, a rising star within the European parliament, first made the accusation publicly during Malmström’s confirmation hearing on Monday afternoon (a video of her revelation can be seen here).

Schaake’s allegation is supported by a copy of the commissioner’s final testimony obtained by Brussels Blog and posted here. The document shows dozens of edits made by Selmayr that were recorded by the word processing programme’s track changes at 8:38am on Sunday. MEPs say the testimony landed in their in-box less than 20 minutes later. 

What has become an increasingly touchy EU-Russia trade relationship took another tit-for-tat turn on Thursday when Brussels escalated a WTO case against Moscow over vehicle recycling fees.

The EU believes a recycling fee Russia charges on imported cars is less about good environmental policy and more a way to squelch foreign competition. The fee does not apply to cars built in Russia or its closest trading partners,Kazakhstan and Belarus.

Brussels complained to the WTO about the levy in July, marking the first case against Russia since it joined the global trade body with much fanfare in 2012 – 19 years after its initial application. On Thursday, the EU asked for a panel to rule on the matter after – to little surprise – settlement talks with Moscow proved fruitless. A result could take months.

“We’ve used all the possible avenues to find with Russia a mutually acceptable solution,” said Karel De Gucht, the EU trade commissioner. “As the fee continues to severely hamper exports of a sector that is key for Europe’s economy, we are left with no choice but to ask for a WTO ruling.” 

Brussels and Beijing appear to be nearing a settlement in a trade fight over solar panels that is the EU’s biggest ever anti-dumping case – based on the more than €20bn in Chinese-made solar products shipped to the bloc in 2011. Sometime on Friday afternoon, EU officials are expecting to learn whether or not their counterparts in Beijing have taken their latest offer.

In theory, the two sides have until August 6th to haggle over a deal. After that date, provisional duties imposed by the EU will jump from about 11 per cent to an average of 47 per cent. The reality is that they have probably already missed that deadline, according to diplomats, given the amount of legwork that Brussels must do to translate an agreement and circulate it among national governments. Hence, the next few days are crucial. 

A few weeks ago, the EU agreed an historic overhaul of its troubled common fisheries policy, setting binding deadlines to end decades of over-fishing that have depleted stocks from the Mediterranean to the North Sea.

But just when it seemed safe to go back in the water, the European parliament’s fisheries committee threatened to take a bite out of the reform on Wednesday. By a 12 to 11 margin, the committee approved an amendment allowing the use of up to €1.6bn in EU funds to help build new fishing boats.

The subsidies fly in the face of the conventional wisdom that the EU’s 83,000-vessel fleet is already far too large, and in need of a drastic cut – some say by half – in order to allow stocks to recover.

“For anyone with a brain this is completely outrageous and very difficult to understand,” said Markus Knigge, a fisheries advisor to the Pew Charitable Trust, citing estimates that the money could result in 19,000 new boats. 

Actor Brad Pitt is interviewed at last week's Paris premiere of his new film "World War Z"

When EU and US officials launched new talks on a transatlantic trade deal earlier this year – an issue of such import that President Barack Obama announced it in his February State of the Union address – many thought the most contentious issues would be agricultural, like US exports of beef with synthetic hormones.

But even before the talks have formally begun, an altogether different issue has threatened to derail the deal: France’s insistence that the so-called “cultural exception” – the ability of European governments to establish quotas and subsidise their home-grown film and music industries – be completely off the table.

The US has insisted on no “carve outs” before the talks even begin, and EU officials worry that if cultural issues are put aside pre-emptively, it will give the Obama administration fodder to respond in kind with an issue that may be sensitive for a wider number of countries – like agriculture.

In an effort to bridge the gap, the Irish presidency last week circulated a new draft of the mandate that will be given to the European Commission in the trade talks which contains new language assuring France that, while audiovisual issues will not be excluded, there will be clear red lines in the EU’s negotiating position. Brussels Blog got its hands on the 12-page document, which is marked “trade-sensitive” across every page and “EU restricted” at top, and posted it here

EU trade chief Karel De Gucht speaks at a press conference in Beijing in 2011

While almost everyone in Brussels was asleep last night – except EU foreign ministers fighting about Syria– the Chinese delegation to the EU put out what can only be described as its toughest response yet to the burgeoning trade dispute between Brussels and Beijing.

The statement, which we’ve posted in its entirety here, came after China’s trade representative Zhong Shan met in Brussels yesterday with the EU’s trade chief, Karel De Gucht, in a last-ditch attempt to head off two trade cases that are among the biggest and most politically radioactive the European Commission has ever attempted: punitive tariffs against Chinese solar panel imports and an anti-dumping investigation of Chinese telecommunications equipment.

In the statement, the Chinese delegation is pretty blunt: If De Gucht moves forward with the cases, there will be retaliation – and that retaliation could lead to a full-blown trade war:

If the EU were to impose provisional anti-dumping duties on Chinese solar panels and to initiate an ex-officio case on Chinese wireless communications networks, the Chinese government would not sit on the sideline but would rather take necessary steps to defend its national interest. Despite the heightened risk of the China-EU bilateral trade dispute widening and escalating, the Chinese government would nevertheless make a best effort for hope of reaching a consensus and avoiding a trade war, but this would require restraint and cooperation on the EU’s part.

 

Someone may well have been drinking absinthe when they decided it would be a good idea to pack up an entire parliament once a month and shuttle its members and their assorted aides and documents to a second home 400 kilometers away.

On Wednesday, members of the European parliament, meeting in their Strasbourg quarters, will have the opportunity to acquaint themselves with absinthe, the spirit renowned for its green tint and supposedly psychedelic properties. Specifically, they will be voting to determine just what absinthe is.

Their decision could escalate a brewing fight between northern and southern European makers of the spirit, which gained fame in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a favoured drink for bohemians and artists including Rimbaud, Degas, Hemingway and Toulouse-Lautrec

Hamburger anyone? Getty Images

There is never a good time for a food chain scandal in which people across a continent are suddenly informed that what they thought was beef lasagne was actually horsemeat of unknown provenance.

But there is an added wrinkle of awkwardness to the EU’s horsemeat scandal, since it coincides with the launch of free-trade negotiations with the US in which food safety standards will be central.

The EU-US effort to forge a trans-Atlantic free-trade agreement was announced with great fanfare on Wednesday afternoon in Brussels by José Manuel Barroso, the European commission president, and Karel De Gucht, the bloc’s trade commissioner. The press conference was the culmination of more than a year of diplomatic spadework between the two sides and decades of dreaming by free-traders, business groups and Atlanticists. 

China’s solar panel manufacturers are facing an uphill battle in their legal fight against the EU, which last week targeted them as it launched the bloc’s biggest-ever an anti-dumping investigation. The case involves Chinese exports of solar panels, wafers and other products that totalled some €21bn last year.

More than half of such anti-dumping investigations result in tariffs being imposed, according to EU officials. Yet there are at least two technical factors at work in the solar dispute that could make the odds even worse for the Chinese.