TTIP and stupid shit: on the ineffectiveness of secrecy

Tom Cassauwers is EU Features Editor for The Critique.

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TTIP negotiations have so far been marred by controversy over transparency. What this shows is not a sinister purpose of TTIP by itself, but a structural tendency towards secrecy in foreign affairs. Secrecy, however, that is threatening to damage EU foreign policy more than it helps it.

US president Barack Obama once declared that his foreign policy revolved around the maxim: “don’t do stupid shit”. In this way he attempted to distance himself from the military interventionism many US top politicians promote (“stupid shit”). While Obama is no stranger of interventionism, think Libya in 2011, he does criticise the gratuitous use of it in US foreign policy. The maxim, however, serves a great metaphor for a wider point: foreign affairs are highly complex, and checks are needed to prevent policymakers from doing “stupid shit”. The all too present tendency of politicians to engage in ill-considered international adventures requires checks on their actions. And public inquiry in the form of transparency and democracy acts as such a check. Something that is just as well needed for international trade as it is for military interventionism.

TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) serves as a symbol for stupid shit in EU external trade policy. TTIP is a planned trade agreement that aims to establish a free trade zone between the European Union and the United States. The negotiations has so far been marred by controversy over the supposed threats the agreement poses to democracy and European regulation.

TTIP is transparent

Notwithstanding criticism from civil society, compared to other trade negotiations TTIP negotiators have been relatively transparent. Positions papers are regularly released, parliamentarians can see documents from which US negotiating positions can be derived, the EU parliament needs to give votes of confidence to negotiators and consultations with civil society are regularly held. This is more than what happens in regular trade negotiations, including other EU trade agreements or bilateral agreements negotiated by European member-states.

TTIP will also most likely be regarded as a mixed agreement, and will thus not only need approval of the European Parliament and Council, but also of member state parliaments after negotiations have been concluded. All these parliaments will have to vote on the final, open document.

This of course leaves quite the number of points open. Even though TTIP negotiations are relatively transparent, this label only works because trade negotiations and foreign policy are highly untransparent. Foreign policy is one of the areas of policy least controlled by democracy. TTIP might be relatively transparent for trade negotiations, but that still leaves key information out of the hands of civil society and parliamentarians. The EU negotiators claim this is to create trust between US and EU negotiators. A reasonable assumption, yet secrecy in the negotiations is breeding distrust between citizens and negotiators. Trust through secrecy leads to distrust for the negotiators among the public.

Democracy in foreign policy

Yet TTIP is not unique in its problems. Foreign policy has been removed from democracy and transparency since the birth of the modern state. The nation-state is the space where democracy and particularly parliament rule, in the inter-state system the executive branch of governments exert control.

In the traditional division of power, the trias politica, foreign policy is placed firmly in the hands of the executive. International politics supposedly requires swift and decisive action, something the people in the form of parliament are too slow or uninformed to handle. Furthermore, the narrative goes, a balanced and consistent foreign policy should be insulated from popular pressure because hard-headed statesmanship makes for better foreign policy than populist mood changes.

The problem with this technocratic conception of foreign affairs is that it is ineffective. Some of the greatest international relations blunders occurred when there was little democratic control over foreign policy. Furthermore, the main movements to democratise foreign affairs originated in the wake of such blunders, not as a result of irrational publics.

The first world war was partly caused by such highly undemocratic diplomacy. Statesmen from aristocratic families set up intricate webs of alliances and negotiated secret treaties that carved up large swathes of Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle-East. This happened with little knowledge of the peoples in those territories, or even the people of the countries these men represented.

We are still dealing with the geopolitical fallout of some of these treaties. For example the Sykes-Picot treaty that secretly cut up the Ottoman empire between European powers. The effects of the colonial domination and irrelevant borders this treaty imposed are felt to this day in an increasingly unstable Middle-East.

Secret diplomacy cannot solely explain world war I, and Sykes-Picot is hardly the only cause for unrest in the Middle-East. But secrecy contributed to some very problematic foreign policy decisions. Its historical record of promoting sound statesmanship is rather abysmal.

One of the biggest pushes for a transparent foreign policy came during and after world war I. Already during the war, anti-war campaigners framed their argument in terms of making foreign policy more transparent and democratic. The lack of which they saw as an important reason for the war.

US president Woodrow Wilson best exemplified the post-war push for democracy over foreign policy. The iconic fourteen-points of Woodrow Wilson started with a demand for:

“Open covenants of peace, openly arrived at, after which there shall be no private international understandings of any kind but diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view.”

Woodrow Wilson’s argument was, however, partly rebuffed at the peace negotiations of Versailles. His campaign was also hindered by his exclusionary attitude towards colonized peoples and non-whites. Much has changed since then, and proper secret treaties, that are completely withheld from the public, are very rare. Their numbers dropped relatively quickly after the world wars.

An undemocratic mentality, however, still persists in foreign policy. Even in established democracies, executives regularly bypass parliament when taking military action. When in 2013 Obama did chose to consult Congress in advance of bombing Syria (he did not have to) he was regarded as weak and indecisive by observers. In line with executive control over foreign policy, parliament is regularly bypassed in many democracies for military interventions.

Not that a parliamentary vote automatically means no foreign policy blunders. The British house of commons has, for example, voted through the 2003 invasion of Iraq with a clear majority. What democratic deliberation does do is put a check upon rash action and initiate broader societal debate on foreign policy. This is especially necessary when policies are enacted internationally that possess little domestic consensus, and whose effectiveness is under doubt.

Trade and stupid shit

The actual content of TTIP is still not known, so it would be too soon to see if it actually contains “stupid shit”, for example cutting the precautionary principle. Secrecy is, however, also affecting EU foreign policy in another way: it makes it harder for negotiators to maintain sufficient support.

European publics increasingly oppose TTIP because of a sequence of controversies largely revolving around a lack of transparency. Eurobarometer results show that opposition to the agreement is growing. In 2014 58% of Europeans were in favour of TTIP, in 2015 this was 53%. This becomes especially significant when in Austria 70% are opposed to the agreement and in Germany 59% show opposition. After leaks by Greenpeace earlier this year, French president Hollande even went as far as stating that he would, at this stage, not accept TTIP, an effective veto.

Agreements similar to TTIP are equally receiving strong opposition inside and outside of Europe. The TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership), a similar and already negotiated agreement between the US and Asia, is now under heavy pressure. All of the prominent US presidential candidates are speaking out against it. A lack of transparency and an attempt to rapidly push it through Congress backfired so that even Hillary Clinton is now critical of TPP. In the EU CETA, an agreement with Canada, is now facing opposition from local institutions such as the Walloon parliament in Belgium. TiSA came under pressure in 2014 after a leak by Wikileaks. The Ukraine-EU Association Agreement (which contains free trade clauses) has been voted down in a Dutch referendum this year. And in 2013 the European Parliament rejected ACTA after controversy arose over its content and lack of transparency during negotiations.

EU procedure for dealing with criticism of trade agreements is to release documents ad-hoc and improvise consultations. That TTIP has been the most critiqued one makes that most official releases and consultations have occurred here, with little effect on a declining confidence level.

Support for EU trade agreements, furthermore, needs to be built at the different administrative levels of the Union. Coalitions need to be constructed at national, subnational and supranational levels throughout the EU because often trade agreements impact policy at all these levels. This requires more effort from negotiators compared to bilateral agreements, where only one government (or at least a more limited number) needs to give its support. Such coalition building, in the face of an internationally organised civil society, is very hard to accomplish when citizens feel they are kept in the dark and lack democratic control.

Coalitions will only be built by structurally embedding openness in foreign policy. Systematic and extensive release of documents is necessary if the EU wants to strive towards inclusive free trade, and build coalitions around this goal. If citizens cannot see what happens in negotiations about TTIP, their confidence in European and national democratic procedures will suffer as well. Secrecy here is not only ineffective, it also increases the existing democratic deficit European citizens feel towards the EU and their respective national states. Secrecy here is thus an all-round example of “stupid shit” as Obama so eloquently put it.

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