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First SOPA then ACTA, now TAFTA- here we go again

Our Trans-Atlantic Call for Exclusion of Intellectual Property from EU-US Trade Talks

US trade policy is currently focused on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), for which President Obama hopes to complete negotiations by October. If the agreement is concluded according to plan, the TPP will include the United States, Canada, Mexico, Peru, Chile, New Zealand, Australia, Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia, and Vietnam.  Japan is signaling its interest to join and Korea would possibly follow Japan. The treaty would remain open for other countries to join as well, so long as they meet the required standards.

Meanwhile, along the Atlantic, the US is preparing to launch negotiations for a Transatlantic Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA)—or what is being touted as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

The establishment of a Trans-Atlantic partnership is not a new idea; the possibility of creating a Trans-Atlantic Free Trade area had been discussed occasionally in the past, especially during the 1970s and 1980s. However, informal discussions failed to solidify into something more concrete.

The United States and the European Union have both entered into economic partnership agreements across the globe, but never before with each other. In 2011, American and European politicians keen on “shaping globalization” (i.e. setting rules for the 21st century) outside the official global forums set up the High-Level Working Group on Growth and Jobs (HLWG) to assess the feasibility of a comprehensive transatlantic trade agreement.  The deal between the world’s two most important economic powers hopes to be a “game-changer.”

The BRICS countries — Brazil, Russia, India, South Africa and perhaps most notably China – have not been invited to either negotiation. It may be the case that these deals aim to better prepare the EU and the US for an upcoming economic battle with the BRICS and other emerging powers.  The BRICS countries have a combined GDP now equivalent to that of the EU or the US.  “This is about the weight of the western, free world in world economic and political affairs,” declared EU Trade Commissioner De Gucht.

The HLWG released its interim report in 2012 identifying policies and measures to increase EU-US trade and investment. The interim report noted that, “it would not be feasible in negotiations to seek to reconcile across the board differences in the IPR obligations that each typically includes in its comprehensive trade agreements.”

However, industry groups soon realized that the so-called Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Agreement presents a perfect opportunity to set “golden standards” for IP regulation and enforcement, which emerging markets like China and India could then be pushed to accept. Groups like PhRMA urged the EU and US to include IP to further strengthen the international regime. Eventually, the HLWG changed its position and is now recommending the inclusion of an IP chapter, although a “limited” one. The Final Report issued by the HLWG recommends that TAFTA negotiations “address a limited number of significant IPR issues of interest to either side, without prejudice to the outcome.”

It is not clear what the HLWG is trying to say. The US and EU regimes are not alike. Geographical indications, for instance, continue to create a transatlantic trade conflict between the US and EU. They have fundamentally different philosophies on the issue.  The EU is committed to enhancing its vast gastronomic heritage of excellence, and pushes for more restrictive rules. The US wants to maintain the status quo to help giant companies like Kraft sell items like “parmesan” cheese around the world.

Any attempt to boost patent or copyright rules in favor of rights holders and against the interests of consumers would be a significant mistake and invite major public resistance. The defeat of ACTA in the EU and the overnight death of SOPA in the US were no accidents. They should serve as a stark reminder to policymakers on either side of the Atlantic.

It goes without saying we will not hold back from raising our voices once again in defense of our fundamental rights to free speech and health, and to uphold the benefits of an open knowledge economy.

To read the declaration of  transatlantic coalition of 45 consumer, public health and Internet freedom groups, visit https://www.citizen.org/ip-out-of-tafta.