Trade Policy Is Science Policy: Much of the Discussion about a Possible Trade Agreement between the United States and Europe Hinges on Technological, Health, Safety, and Environmental Standards

By Pfotenhauer, Sebastian | Issues in Science and Technology, Fall 2013 | Go to article overview

Trade Policy Is Science Policy: Much of the Discussion about a Possible Trade Agreement between the United States and Europe Hinges on Technological, Health, Safety, and Environmental Standards


Pfotenhauer, Sebastian, Issues in Science and Technology


By the time this article goes to press, the United States and Europe will be preparing for their second round of negotiations on a comprehensive free trade agreement, scheduled to commence on October 7 in Brussels. The ground for this widely noted Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) was prepared earlier this year by a joint announcement by U.S. and European leaders during the G8 summit in Northern Ireland in June, followed by a first round of negotiations in Washington in July. The political stakes are high. President Obama has declared TTIP a priority of his administration in the second term, and attention to the subject has been raised further by the parallel efforts of a U.S.-Japan free trade agreement. Recent allegations about U.S. espionage activities in Europe that captured media attention as a result of the Snowden leaks nearly prompted EU politicians to cease trade negotiations before they really began.

The idea of aligning the United States and the EU in a free trade zone is not new. Many attempts have been made in the past to better integrate the world's two leading economic regions, which are jointly responsible for 40% of global economic output and $ 2 billion in daily trade of goods and services. However, given the abundance of dire economic news in recent years, this time analysts and commentators were quick to tout the renewed push by government leaders on both sides of the Atlantic. Following the initial announcement during Obama's State of the Union Address on February 12, 2013, the New York Times wrote of a "trans-atlantic grand bargain [..] that would cover nearly half of the world's economy [and] give a significant boost to the global economy and renew America's most important alliance." The Economist titled its story "A good idea [..] that business should rush to support." The Times (London), commented that "transatlantic trade [is] set for historic breakthrough" and cautioned against the prospect that "Britain would be excluded if it decided to pull out of the Union." The German weekly Die Zeit heralded "The dream of a Wirtschafts [economic]-NATO," indicating that TTIP might not only address the weary problem of a sluggish economic recovery, but also provide a much-needed new vision for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and transatlanticism at large after the end of the cold war.

Yet, upon closer inspection, the acclamations are premature and arguably misleading. Trade tariffs and taxes--the traditional targets of free trade agreements--are already virtually nonexistent between the United States and Europe for most goods and services, averaging only 4%. The main leverage of TTIP would lie in reducing non-tariff barriers, such as the costs imposed by national regulations and red tape. As captured succinctly by Vice President Joe Biden at the Munich Security Conference: "The reason we don't have [TTIP] already is not because no one ever thought of it; it's because-there have always been difficult issues, such as regulations and standards, which continue to divide us." In other words, TTIP is primarily a proposition about harmonization or mutual recognition of regulatory frameworks, most notably those that deal with the high-tech, high value-added goods and services that the EU and the United States care about most. It is, in short, about of technological, health, safety, and environmental standards.

TTIP thus falls squarely within the domain of science and technology policy, a domain where agreement on common goals and mechanisms for implementation has proven contentious between Europe and the United States. The decade-long stand-off on genetically modified (GM) organisms, irreconcilable positions on international agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol on climate change and the Basel Convention on hazardous waste management, or the adherence to different safety standards in the automobile industry are cases in point that highlight how entrenched the European and U. …

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