U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman is having a bad week. First, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell put the kibosh on lingering prospects that his chamber would consider ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal this year. Then Germany’s economy minister proclaimed the 3-year-old Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations had “de facto” failed, with the French trade minister promising to pursue formal termination of the talks – adding that “the Americans give nothing or just crumbs” (which puts the USTR beneath Marie Antoinette, who at least offered cake).
Whether McConnell is being coy in hopes of extracting concessions from the administration on TPP is unclear, but either way the likelihood is approaching certainty that ratification of the Pacific trade deal will become the responsibility of the next president and Congress. For reasons given here and here, I’m bullish on that outcome within two years.
But the TTIP is a different story. Although the negotiations are not officially dead, they might as well be. Talks were doomed from the outset, laden with too many intractable issues, too many red lines, a thorough lack of realism concerning the time and effort required for success, and a profound asymmetry in the desire to get a deal done. With U.S. negotiators focused on completing the TPP, the EU’s embrace and commitment to the TTIP became a case of unrequited love. With each EU overture, the U.S. negotiators could play hard to get. And they did.
Now, the United Kingdom’s likely departure from the EU complicates matters further, with uncertainty about the future composition of the EU impeding proper evaluation of the expected tradeoffs from a prospective TTIP. So, while the prevailing uncertainty likely means TTIP stasis for the next couple of years, Brexit would give U.S. negotiators even more leverage in TTIP than they already have. The possibility of a US-UK free trade agreement or a UK accession to the TPP would undoubtedly shift TTIP dynamics further in favor of U.S. negotiators – and give the UK added leverage in negotiating its own post-Brexit relationship with the EU.
TTIP isn’t dead. It’s in a coma. For it to have any hope of recovery and real success – an outcome with real liberalization that is – a restoration of some semblance of symmetry in demand for that outcome is necessary. With the existing imbalance, it's better to have no deal at all because the misguided objectives of negotiators are to open foreign markets as much as possible, while keeping their own as closed as possible. Negotiators with leverage are more likely to succeed at keeping their own markets closed, depriving their fellow citizens of the real benefits of trade. For Americans to realize the most important benefits of trade liberalization, its negotiators must be matched up against foreign negotiators with approximately the same strength (or leverage). When the foreign trade negotiators don't have enough leverage, U.S. consumers and import-consuming industries lose.
For any TTIP outcome to be considered successful, the deal must tackle U.S. restrictions on competition in shipping (repealing the Jones Act), commercial air services, and government procurement projects. Trillions of dollars of annual economic activity in the United States is provided by domestic suppliers facing no foreign competition, which represents an enormous drag on U.S. growth. In the TTIP negotiations to date, the United States hasn't budged an inch to accommodate any liberalization in those areas. Until that is no longer the case, the TTIP should be considered a failure.
When the TTIP negotiations were launched in 2013, I warned in this paper that the talks included the seeds of its own destruction and that a successful outcome would require a new approach:
As great as the benefits may be, the TTIP was not borne of any genuine enthusiasm for the enterprise. In Europe, it was seen as a last resort. Frustrated by the failures of monetary policy and restricted by the imperative of fiscal austerity, policymakers were looking for something—anything—to embrace as a potential economic tonic. Whether they actually thought TTIP likely to bear fruit is an entirely different matter. They wanted something to behold as evidence that Greece did not represent Europe’s fate. Potential voter wrath, political backlash, and stalemate–historically effective deterrents to initiating transatlantic trade talks–took a back seat to the affirmative optics of embracing some plausible initiative that might steer Europe from the abyss.
For U.S. policymakers, the main motivation for launching TTIP was to assuage EU concerns that the United States had written her off in its “pivot” to Asia.
Other rationales for pursuing TTIP include the argument that the world needs the United States and European Union to reassert global economic leadership at a time when no other country or group of countries is willing or able to do so. Another is that there is a race to establish global production standards and TTIP, representing half the world’s output, presents an opportunity to establish them here and now. A third ex-post rationale is that by establishing disciplines on issues where other trade agreements are silent—issues like currency manipulation, the operations of state-owned enterprises, local content rules, and others—the United States and EU could establish rules that China and others would eventually have to heed.
It is within this context that TTIP emerged. But none of those rationales–pursuing TTIP as a last resort, assuaging hurt feelings, establishing standards, disciplining China and others–seem likely to provide the motivation for negotiators and governments to dig deep and remain committed enough to make difficult choices that may carry political consequences. As the talks drag, will governments remain committed to the goals? Will governments motivated by the “last resort” rationale continue to invest seriously in the negotiations if their economies experience growth and the political costs of TTIP no longer look so necessary to incur? Already there have been signs of retreat from the ambitious goals articulated at the outset.
From the outset, negotiators erred by setting a 2014 completion date for the negotiations. There is absolutely no plausibility to that deadline and, frankly, failure to amend the timetable with realistic deadlines will only undermine the credibility of the undertaking with a public already skeptical of trade negotiations.
There are dozens of issues on the table of varying complexity that will likely take several years to resolve. Rather than have a single deadline for a single undertaking, the negotiators should announce that their intention is to achieve a multi-tiered agreement that yields multiple harvests at established time intervals. Some analysts have referred to the TTIP as a “living agreement,” although a common understanding of that concept is not evident nor, to my knowledge, have the governments or their negotiators used this characterization in any official context. They should. And it should work something like this.
Negotiators would take stock of the issues on the table and rank them in order of importance to a successful TTIP conclusion. They would then rank those same issues in terms of order of difficulty to resolve. Based on averaging and some agreed upon weighting of those two sets of rankings, negotiators would identify what they and their counterparts see as the most important and least important issues, as well as the most difficult and least difficult issues to resolve. That exercise would produce a road map for how to proceed.
When the dust settles and greater certainty emerges, the United States and EU (and UK) might consider relaunching the TTIP negotiations along these lines. But the parties should come to the table with a genuine willingness to liberalize everything (including sacred cows) because that is what will generate the interest, excitement, and leverage to achieve a really successful outcome.