by Nikos Lavranos, Secretary General of EFILA
At the last meeting of the Trade Policy Committee (TPC) at Full Members level, that is at Director General level, encompassing all MS and the European Commission, DG Demarty of the Commission is quoted as saying that the EU trade policy would have a “big credibility problem” if it could not ratify the CETA deal and added that it would be “close to death.”
He is definitely correct with this assessment, but he does not draw the necessary conclusions from this assessment, namely, that the Commission has spectacularly failed to provide the added value when the Member States rather unconsciously transferred the competence on foreign direct investment to the EU. This in turn leads to the conclusion that the trade and investment policy has been de facto re-nationalized.
In order to understand this conclusion, it is important to give a short historic overview of what has happened (or rather not) since the Lisbon Treaty entered into force in December 2009.
The unconscious transfer of the FDI competence
There seems to be no documented story on why, how and when exactly the FDI competence was transferred from the Member States to the EU. Anecdotal stories tell that in the very last minutes before the European Convention was concluded, which was tasked with drawing up a European Constitution, the European Commission rather secretly smuggled the three words “foreign direct investment” into the provision containing the exclusive trade competence of the EU.
At that time, since investment policy had been a purely national matter of the Member States, no investment policy or arbitration experts were present or involved in the drawing up of the European Constitution. Rather general EU law experts were doing the job, which were told since the EU’s internal capital market provisions already also apply to foreign investors, it makes sense as a sort of mirror provision to expand the EU’s competence to include foreign direct investment. In this context, it is interesting to note that nowhere was there any further definition or description of the scope of FDI. As will be explained below, this lack of clarity is the root of the failure of the EU’s investment policy.
Whether or not the anecdotal stories are true, the fact is that after the European Constitution was re-labelled as Lisbon Treaty, FDI became part of Art.207 TFEU, which used to be the old Art.133 EC, covering the European Common Commercial Policy, in particular WTO law.
So, when the Lisbon Treaty entered into force in late 2009, neither the Member States nor the Commission really knew what this meant.
Mixity: the big elephant in the room
But from the very beginning, it was clear that there was one big elephant in the room, named “mixity”.
The mixity issue surfaced regularly at various levels and has created constant tensions between the Member States and the European Commission.
The first issue where mixity came up was regarding the scope of the FDI competence.
While most Member States understand FDI in a narrow sense, encompassing only direct investments, the Commission naturally construed it broadly, covering also indirect investments.
These divergent views have been simmering in the background all the time with occasional burst outs. For example, when Member States or rather the Council issued negotiating mandates to the Commission for FTAs. The Member States always stressed that they assumed these FTAs should be mixed, whereas the Commission always claimed that they are in principle EU exclusive, and in any case this would depend on the final content of the FTAs.
In other words, this issue was never settled and it appeared that only the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) could settle this for good. Indeed, Karel de Gucht, the former Trade Commissioner, was so fed up about the mixity issue, that in his final day in office he brought the question to the CJEU. He asked the CJEU for an opinion as to whether the EU-Singapore FTA is mixed or EU exclusive. The Commission obviously being of the opinion that it is EU exclusive.
Mixity as a political appeasement instrument
While the general public has largely been unaware of the EU-Singapore FTA and the mixity issue before the CJEU, the widespread political hysteria against TTIP, and to lesser extent against CETA, has forced the Commission to adopt a selective U-turn on the mixity issue.
First, with regard to TTIP, Commissioner Malmstrom rather quickly understood that in order to save TTIP and obtain some minimum acceptance in several key Member States, such as Germany, France, Netherlands and Austria, a vote by the respective national parliaments is an absolute precondition for getting the TTIP deal done. Accordingly, Malmstrom has been touring most Member States assuring them that their parliaments will be voting on TTIP.
Second, and in contrast to the politically sensible U-turn regarding TTIP, which though is in clear conflict with the Commission’s longstanding view that it is exclusively competent for all investment issues, Malmstrom, and her adjutant Demarty, until very recently maintained their position that CETA should be ratified as an EU-exclusive agreement. After all, CETA and in particular the hated ISDS provisions have been drastically reformed, so all concerns have been addressed and a vote by the European Parliament on CETA should give sufficient comfort to the Member States and their citizens.
But the massive critique against any trade deal in the Member States has been gaining so much momentum that the Commission had to give in – also regarding CETA. Thus, CETA will be ratified as a mixed agreement, which may take several years before all parliaments (it appears that also several regional parliaments will vote on it as well) have ratified it.
This brings us to the third thorny issue, namely the so-called “provisional application” of CETA (or any other trade deal). It has become tradition in the past to apply trade deals provisionally as soon as the Council signs it off, while awaiting the conclusion of the whole ratification process. The obvious advantage of this is that the benefits of the trade deal can be reaped immediately, notwithstanding the non- fulfillment of the formal legal requirements. The question, which pops up in this context is, which parts of the trade deal can be immediately “applied provisionally”? That depends on which parts of the trade deal are considered to fall in the exclusive competence of the EU and which parts are still wholly or partly with the Member States’ competence.
Again, the Commission started off from its maximum position that the whole treaty should be provisionally applied. But the Member States – having realized how far the Commission is ready to go in order to save the CETA deal – came up with a whole list of policy areas (which most likely will be extended after the summer break), which are to be excluded from the provisional application of CETA. In addition to investment protection rules, Member States have flagged in particular transport, sustainability chapter in parts, culture subsidies, mediation and criminal sanctions to protect intellectual property, as areas to be excluded from provisional application.
The Commission already has accepted that investment rules should be excluded but continues to fight any further expansion of the list, arguing that this would undermine any meaningful provisional application.
This battle will go for some weeks ahead, but the intention is that CETA is finally signed at the EU-Canada summit on 27 October 2016. Accordingly, sometime in early October the Member States and the Commission must agree on the list of policy areas, which de facto are considered to be mixed.
The de facto re-nationalization of the trade and investment policy
Again, it can be expected that the Commission will be flexible in order to get the deal done, which only enhances the position of the Member States.
That will be even more so in the case of TTIP, which is far more important (politically and economically speaking), but also far more contagious and politicized in the public debate. Member States have realized that they are in a much stronger position if they appear to be critical or outright against TTIP rather than in support of it. Consequently, citing domestic public outcry against TTIP, Member States can not only request that TTIP must be mixed, but can extract further demands from the Commission, such the exclusion of certain policy areas or further “improvements” of highly politicized areas such as regulatory cooperation, geographical indications, agricultural etc.
All this boils down to the conclusion that the Commission’s position that it has exclusive competence over all trade and investment aspects can simply not be maintained anymore by the Commission. Whereas the original idea might have been good to give the Commission a carte blanche because it presumably could negotiate better trade deals, it has become clear over the past 6 years that the Commission has failed to deliver. The main reason for that is that it “forgot” to take the Member States’ concerns serious and instead consistently opted to remind them that they have no say anymore on trade and investment issues. In other words, rather than working closely together with the Member States and carefully listen to them, the Commission did what it wanted. However, in the current political climate and with Brexit ahead of us, the support for the EU is rapidly dwindling. Instead, Member States are reasserting their powers again. Indeed, it is striking to see how easily and within months the Member States have been able to force the Commission to give up its almost sacred position of exclusive competence. The Commission has now seemingly adopted a more practical and realistic approach of accepting mixity for free trade deals. Although, it remains to be seen how it will handle the outcome of the Opinion of the CJEU regarding the EU-Singapore FTA.
In sum, it must be concluded that the transfer of the FDI competence to the EU has not yielded any results since the beginning. After 6 years no single trade deal has been fully signed, ratified and entered into force. In addition, the Commission is spreading doubts about the legal certainty of Member States’ BITs (both intra and extra) and is undermining the application of the ECT. Therefore, the Member States are only right in re-asserting control over trade and investment issues. Indeed, Brexit will offer an excellent opportunity to delete FDI from the exclusive EU competence, when the EU treaties have to be modified anyway.