I along with other senior European Parliament colleagues, recently returned from a visit to Washington DC a visit which I found to be highly informative.
The main reason for our delegation flying across the pond was to assess the state of play of negotiations regarding TTIP - the trade agreement currently being negotiated between the EU and United States. This was also an opportunity to outline our priorities to US politicians and stakeholders. Although negotiations are still in the relatively early stages the prospect of such a deal is already proving highly controversial across the EU, not least in the UK where there are fears that food standards and public services could be at risk.
Like any trade deal, TTIP represents both huge opportunity and significant risk. TTIP is estimated to be worth €10billion to the UK - so there is potential for Northern Ireland if a fair and balanced deal can be achieved.
Both sides have offensive and defensive interests. With colleagues I am pushing for access for local companies to US public procurement markets, from municipal to federal level, and for increased market access in financial services while guaranteeing that nothing in TTIP would affect our ability to take steps to ensure the stability of our financial systems.
As co-author of the Agriculture Committee’s recommendations to the negotiators, I have been following the process of this deal extremely closely from Brussels. It was therefore interesting to canvass opinion on the American side from Members of Congress and Washington insiders.
It was made clear during discussions that we can expect little movement across the Atlantic until President Obama’s other major trade deal with the Pacific region (TPP), which is awaiting formal ratification, is wrapped up. My personal feeling is that Congress are unlikely to provide Obama with two major trade deals for his legacy, as a result TTIP will end up on the back burner until 2017.
Congressmen I spoke to shared my view that, from both the US and the EU side, Agriculture will end up being the issue that makes or breaks the deal. I took every opportunity to make clear that we are not prepared to see any diminution of standards. The European Union quite rightly values its high food safety standards and should not settle for any agreement that puts our agri-food sector under threat.
It is therefore important to note that nothing has been agreed yet. While we do not know what the final text will be, before any agreement is implemented it must be ratified by all 28 Member States as well as the European Parliament. I sincerely hope the final text will represent a fair and balanced deal Northern Ireland can support.
However, if our agri-food sector or vital public services like the NHS are put at risk or used as bargaining chips, there quite frankly can be no deal. In any case, whether there is political will to get TTIP through this side of an American election remains to be seen.
Jim Nicholson, Ulster Unionist MEP