Leaks are bedeviling trade negotiations.
In October, the European Commission leaked its position papers for the US-EU free trade agreement talks, known as the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership Agreement or T-TIP.
In November, Wikileaks leaked a draft of the intellectual property chapter of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade agreement among 12 countries bordering the Pacific Ocean. The same group also leaked a draft outlining country positions on key negotiating chapters in the TPP in early December.
And in December, a Dutch NGO, Corporate Europe Observatory, leaked a position paper on the proposed regulatory coherence chapter of the partnership.
These leaks underscore a new reality: How policymakers negotiate and interact with their constituents about trade negotiations could be as important as what they negotiate. In a world of instant communications and social media, governments are struggling to find a way to develop public trust while effectively conducting trade policy negotiations.
Trade liberalization has long been contentious. In Europe and the U.S., citizens fear trade’s immediate impact on jobs without seeing the widely dispersed benefits of trade liberalization on growth, governance, productivity and competition. Moreover, public engagement in the trade policy process is at best sporadic and limited. The public can formally comment before trade negotiations begin, but once initiated, the public cannot directly influence the course of negotiations. A small circle of specialists makes trade policy, often with a disproportionate amount of influence from those with a direct economic benefit. In sum, policymakers have developed an efficient trade development process — but that process has not created public support and understanding.
Many individuals also see the process of negotiating trade liberalization as undemocratic and ill-fitted to the information age. These critics note that just as in the 19th century, trade diplomats go to a conference room and negotiate in secret. They do not share their results with the public until the agreement has been finalized.
Trade diplomats argue that secrecy is essential to trade negotiations because policymakers must protect businesses confidential information and build trust among negotiators. But a growing number of observers wonder if secrecy is necessary when trade diplomats draft language on food safety, environmental and labor standards and regulatory coherence. In fact, while secrecy may build trust between policymakers, secrecy undermines the trust negotiators need if they are to achieve public support for their efforts.
In the wake of public protests over the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, designed to protect intellectual property, and public concern about trade agreements in general, policymakers have made some changes to how as well as with whom they talk about trade. For example, the U.S. used a blog and Twitter to put forward new ideas for the intellectual property chapter of the TPP. The European Commission released its position papers on key negotiating issues and drafted fact sheets on controversial issues aimed at reassuring constituents that their concerns have been heard. The commission also plans to establish a multi-stakeholder advisory committee to offer feedback on progress toward T-TIP. The U.S. and the EU host stakeholder meetings at every negotiating session of T-TIP, where NGO and corporate representatives can express their views. (The U.S. also holds these meetings for TPP.)
Although these steps are important, trade policymakers should become more proactive and interactive online. They should view trade websites not just as a dissemination device but as a tool for civic participation. They ought to develop a website that clearly delineates the objectives and status of negotiations for each chapter of proposed trade agreements. Moreover, they should seek input and clearly explain how officials will use this input. Trade officials could also experiment with strategies to incorporate public suggestions, for example by using crowdsourcing to solve trade policy problems.
Change is coming to trade policymaking. Officials can embrace the changes needed to achieve greater transparency and accountability or they may find that citizens will force change upon them.
Susan Ariel Aaronson and Michael Owen Moore teach and write about trade policy at the Institute of International Economic Policy at George Washington University. This piece first appeared in the Baltimore Sun.