Cecilia Malmström: “we are not the only ones having high standards”

The European Commissioner for Trade, Cecilia Malmström, gave us an exclusive interview when she came to the College on the 19th October 2015 for the Conference “Transatlantic Leadership: challenges and opportunities” organized by the IRD Department and the European Foreign Affairs review.


Cecilia Malmström during her speech at the College
Cecilia Malmström during her speech at the College

La Voix du Collège: The French Minister of Trade recently declared that the United States are not serious about the TTIP discussions. Have we reached a dead end?

Cecilia Malmström: No, we have not and after having read this interview, I called Mathias Fekl (Ndlr: the French Minister) immediately. We speak very often, to report to him and many others. I can understand that there is frustration and that you don’t see concrete progress because everything is linked and you cannot say “chapter 1: done, chapter 2: …”. It doesn’t work that way. But no, we are not in a dead end. It is true that concluding TPP will make things easier for us because the whole administration can really focus on TTIP but we are advancing, we have the 11th session beginning today [on the 19th October, day of the interview]. We have lots of very concrete items on the agenda on which we will make progress so it is advancing.


In the new trade strategy, the Commission ‘pledges’ that no EU agreement will lead to lower standards. How do you plan to ensure this concretely, and does this not mean walking away from an agreement if necessary?

That has been very clear in the mandate before. It’s not like we are changing the practice, this is just a concern that we are hearing very often, maybe not so much in the public debate but many local politicians express it, they write to me, they call me. We want to make sure that this is really written in our strategy as well as to make sure that it’s not negotiable, not on the agenda. And to make clear to our coming partners that it’s part of the mandate. There are cities in Europe that have opened up for competition and have American, Canadian or European clinics and schools. And that is of course allowed but this is their choice. No one will be forced to make that choice in TTIP or in anything else. So we have to make sure that it is clearly spelled out in the mandate and articulated to our counterparts from the very beginning.


After TPP and TTIP, does the future belong to EU-China trade relations? Do the negotiations of the EU-China BIT show any progress?

They do. I had a meeting with the Trade Minister Gao who was in Brussels [one month] ago. We are moving forward. We are not done yet, there is still work to be done. It’s a much more limited agreement on investment to create a more level playing field for our companies. I’m quite positive we can conclude it but not tomorrow. It will take some time. So it is a very important step in our relations and once this is concluded, we’ll see where we take it when it comes to other free trade agreements. This has to be done first.


Cecilia Malmström speaking with the students after the conference
Cecilia Malmström speaking with the students after the conference

Some consider that the debate is too focused on TTIP. For them, the really concerning topic seems to be the negotiations on the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA), and whether it is a danger for European regulations and public services.

No, I don’t think so. We have also published every document related to TiSA because we saw that is was coming. There have been many countries taking part in it: EU+21 countries are part of the negotiations. Some countries have of course made proposals in there that we don’t agree with and that has created some turbulence online, but it’s the same there: we’ll not open up to privatizing public services. However, services represent 70% of our trade, of our economy. So if we can facilitate services to cross the borders of Europe, it’s a good thing. But we want to make sure that it is made in full transparency so that the European citizens feel comfortable. We have very close contact with Member States of course and there is also a specific TiSA group in the European Parliament, apart from the trade committee that follows this very closely. As far as I know, they think that the negotiations go in the right direction. There was a negotiation round only ten days ago. We do make progress there.


Following the new ‘Trade for all’ strategy, the Commission will, at the launch of negotiations for a trade agreement, ‘invite’ the Council to publish the directive it plans to give to the Commission for the negotiations. Since it is only an invitation, is it not merely a symbolic initiative? And if the Council does decide to publish it, does that not worsen the Commission’s bargaining position in negotiations, given the fact that our counterparts will already be aware of the EU mandate?

No, I don’t think so. The mandate is not about going into details in the negotiations but it is about setting the direction. I thought when I came to this job that the mandate once it was shared with our counterparts would be automatically made public. That has not been the case before. I deplore that, but now that TTIP is there, TiSA is there. I wrote to the Council and asked them to publish TiSA and they did. When you start with transparency, it’s difficult to go back. I imagine that at least all coming agreements will be published. I don’t think they will harm negotiations because they are not that detailed. They show that this is what we want to achieve and then of course you have to be a little bit careful with some of the negotiation positions vis-à-vis your partners because you don’t want to be naive. If you make everything out to the public, you cannot negotiate anything. Once we have the mandate, the position text or the legal proposals, the Commission owns them and so we can choose to publish without the Council’s consent but I don’t think they will object. We have of course discussed this with many others so I don’t think so.


Does the Volkswagen controversy not prove that double regulatory controls are more efficient than a single one?

(Laughs) This is an interesting idea. I’ve never heard this question before. It does prove that we are not the only ones having high standards. We are very proud to have high standards and we should. But sometimes others also have them and know how to monitor them. This particular case on emissions is not negotiated or part of the agenda. In many ways, it does make sense to have double standards because we are different but when we are very equal, it doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense to inspect factories twice the same way, to have inflammatory tests twice the same way, it doesn’t make sense to start a whole new production just because one little cable in the car needs to be red in Europe and blue in the US. For these kinds of things, standards are scientifically and objectively equal. But of course, it shows that we are not always perfect in Europe.


Some students of the College with Cecilia Malmström
Some students of the College with Cecilia Malmström

The trade negotiations are transparent as never before, yet they are being contested. How do you explain this paradox?

I don’t really know. This is something science needs to look at in retrospective. Of course, I was not there from the beginning. It’s hard to say that had we opened up from the very beginning, it would have been less controversial. I am not sure because many of those who are really skeptical about this say it is not transparent. But if you ask them about it, they haven’t even looked at the paper. They are against the idea as a whole, which is fine because this is an opinion you are entitled to have. But I don’t think publishing one more document will make them suddenly like the idea. Once we have the agreement and while we wait for all countries to ratify as well as for the translation and the legal scrabbling, we’ll put it online. So, the whole agreement will be available online in English and people will be able to see that all these fears are not justified. I don’t know why this agreement in particular, though. Nobody asked me about Japan. Why are these negotiations so controversial? All European countries trade with the US more or less, and many have done so far for hundreds of years, they are not a new partner. It symbolizes a lot of fear, of feelings of anti-globalization, of the belief that big companies caused the economic crisis, and that these companies are the only ones benefiting from the agreement. All of that plays in.


Do you really think ISDS is a problem?

ISDS as it has been perceived and as it has functioned in the past has a legitimacy problem because it has never been trusted. That is why in my hearing I promised to reform it. I will try to reform the system and what we have proposed now is not to get away from the whole ISDS. It’s an investment court that takes many of the concerns into account. I hope it will be accepted as quite a dramatic reform.


Is the hurry of the European Commission to conclude a new safe harbor agreement with the US not detrimental to the rights of the EU citizens?

There is not hurry so to say to conclude it, that we are desperately trying to do. My colleague was already trying to reform the old safe harbor agreement because the Commission criticized it many years ago. She has been working towards a much more stable thing, which is not concluded. There is of course a basis for doing that. This shows that work needs to continue. So there is no hurry in itself in the sense that we have a deadline. But of course it makes sense to try to replace the old system with something solid that can in a good way defend the privacy of the citizens but still gives us the possibility to exchange data and to have digital trade, for instance.


You were accused of having said ‘I am not a representative of the European people’; do you not consider yourself as a representative of the European people?

Of course I am. This particular article has fabricated a quote I didn’t say. I tried to this explain this to this particular person, who claims to be a journalist but is really an activist, because he said “millions of people are against, why do you not listen to the people?”. I was trying to explain to him that the mandate I had as a basis has been given to me by the Member States. I cannot change the mandate, and protestors cannot change it. I have to do with the mandate that the Member States have given to me. From that he fabricated a quote saying “I do not take my mandate from the European people”, whereas I was simply trying to explain to him how the mandate comes about. I’m proposed by my government and then confirmed by the European Parliament, who is the representative of the people. I’m responsible in front of the European Parliament. The European Parliament can sack me. Of course, I represent the European people even though commissioners are not elected but are appointed. That was a very bizarre incident fabricating something I’ve never said and that created a lot of excitement in social media.


You were commissioner for home affairs during the last European legislature. Is the Dublin III Convention over according to you?

I tried to change Dublin during my mandate but there was a fierce resistance from the Member States. Only two Member States were considering changing Dublin because they saw this coming. But all other countries were totally against. We also tried at many occasions to soften up and put emergency provisions in Dublin, but they were also totally against this. Now, it’s even the Council’s conclusion that Dublin has to be revised.


Across Europe, far right is on rise. In Sweden, the country you’re from, it is dangerously threatening the government. Do you think the EU is in danger?

I think the rise of right-wing extremism, but we have also left-wing extremism, is of course a very dangerous thing in Europe, because more and more people are questioning the fundamental values of the European Union, convinced by very populist and simplistic arguments. But life is not. You cannot summarize life in 140 characters on Twitter. It’s much more complex and we all know that. So these movements are dangerous and they make me very fearful. Whether that will influence the Swedish government or not, we will have to see.

Interview conducted by Hannah NICKEL & Nathan de ARRIBA-SELLIER

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