TTIP advice to Obama from four former USTRs

U.S. and EU officials began the third round of negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) this week in Washington, D.C. Passage of the free trade agreement would further entwine two of the largest economies and trade relationships in the world, representing 45 percent of the world’s GDP and over one-third of global trade. Advocates of TTIP highlight the anticipated economic boon the trade agreement will provide for the regions, both of which have struggled with economic stagnation and contraction. Skeptics point to the potential pitfalls—from lack of regulatory convergence to differing cultural attitudes on issues ranging from the protection of intellectual property to farming practices— that could delay or even derail such a complicated and nuanced trade agreement.

The University of Virginia’s Miller Center, in partnership with the University of Edinburgh’s Europa Institute, convened a conference two weeks ago to examine the prospective free trade pact.  Of special note was the assembly of former U.S. Trade Representatives Ron Kirk, Susan Schwab, Mickey Kantor, and Clayton Yeutter—the lead U.S. trade negotiators during the Obama, Bush 43, Clinton and Reagan administrations, respectively—to discuss lessons learned from the negotiation of past free trade agreements of similar scope.

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Notably, the group universally supported the proposed free trade agreement on grounds that transcended party affiliation.

Ambassador Kantor underscored the significance of TTIP in this way: “It’s about jobs. It’s about our economy. It’s how we relate to the rest of the world. It’s about U.S. leadership. It’s a big deal.”

Ambassador Kirk characterized Obama’s pursuit of new free trade agreements in both the East and West—through TTIP and the Trans Pacific Partnership already underway—as a logical expansion of the dynamic transatlantic trade that has dominated economic affairs in the last century. He also described the dual focus as the best possible way to seize on the emerging global consumers that American producers are dependent upon for growth. “Operating on two fronts is simply a matter of smart business,” Kirk said.

Advancing the negotiations will demand strong leadership by President Obama and current USTR Michael Froman, according to the group of former USTRs. They agreed that it must be clear that Froman has the ear of the president and is speaking directly for him in order to maintain momentum.  They also applauded Froman for his trade experience and the strong negotiating talent that he has demonstrated to date, noting, too, that Obama had signaled strong support for the transatlantic trade relationship in his 2013 “State of the Union” Address by announcing that trade talks with the EU would launch.

The USTRs said that kind of sustained attention and a willingness to expend political capital when needed throughout the negotiations would be absolutely necessary to assure stakeholders—whether it is politicians, private business interests, or the potential trade partners—that the agreement is a viable and likely outcome.  Leadership on all fronts, but especially from the president, was an essential ingredient identified by the USTRs in ensuring productive trade negotiations with the EU.

The USTRs also emphasized the importance of the procedural step of securing trade promotion authority (TPA) from Congress in order to streamline trade negotiations. As Ambassador Schwab explained it, “The U.S. cannot conclude and get through Congress any kind of a detailed trade agreement without the president having TPA—or fast-tracking authority-- in hand.”

TPA is the process through which the House and Senate agree to certain rules by which a trade agreement is moved through Congress with an up-or-down vote and without filibuster. Kantor echoed the importance of TPA: “No one is going to sit down and negotiate with you if they think you’re going to go back to the Congress of the United States and they’re going to amend your trade agreements. Therefore, what you’ve negotiated is no good.”

Representatives from both sides of the political aisle agreed that TPA is the necessary legislative vehicle for passing through trade agreements, and they noted that strong bipartisan support for it also exists on the Hill. Progress may be already being made on this front with plans reportedly in place to introduce a measure extending TPA in early 2014. The organization of a bicameral, bipartisan effort to secure TPA—and use it as an impetus for further movement on both TPP and TTIP—is an important opportunity in US trade that must be seized upon. It is a tool that has been employed by past USTRs to achieve their trade negotiation goals. Without it, the future of these agreements would be much less assured.

Bush is coordinator of Policy and Student Programs at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. The Miller Center recently hosted a conference titled “The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership: A Multilateral Perspective” that include a keynote panel with former USTRs.