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MEPs slam commission for ‘smoke-screening’ tobacco lobby meetings

Written by Julie Levy-Abegnoli

The commission has been attacked for releasing highly censured documents linked to TTIP talks with big tobacco.

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As part of its effort to make EU trade agreement talks more transparent – including those for the controversial transatlantic trade and investment partnership (TTIP) – the European commission has released a series of documents detailing contacts with the tobacco industry.

This was done at the request of transparency campaigners Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO), back in March.

However, much of the documents’ contents were blacked out, including the names of all the lobbyists and commission officials involved in meetings, dates and even, in a 14-page letter from British American Tobacco, a page number.

Defending the heavy censorship of the files, commission secretary-general Catherine Day argued that “public interest [on the issue] does neither outweigh the public interest in protecting the commission’s international relations and decision-making process, nor the commercial interests of the companies in question in this case.”

Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats MEP Glenis Willmott blasted Day’s reasoning, pointing out that “there is a fundamental conflict between the public interest and the commercial interests of the tobacco industry, which rely on the promotion of a product that is the leading cause of preventable death and disease in Europe.”

Fellow Socialist deputy Catherine Stihler said, “my colleagues and I have been clear that bringing an end to secret investor tribunals are essential elements of any EU-US trade agreement and I would think it was issues such as investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) being discussed at these meetings”.

ISDS has been one of the most hotly debated aspects of TTIP, with many MEPs staunchly opposing it. It was originally planned as a private arbitration mechanism between governments and corporations, leading to fears that companies would have too much power over national policymaking.

During last month’s plenary session, parliament backed a resolution calling for an amended ISDS, with “publically appointed, independent professional judges [in] public hearings”, according to the adopted text.

Stihler added, “tobacco is the leading cause of preventable death and disease in the EU, so it is in the public interest for talks with this industry to be transparent.”

“Protecting public health is of the highest importance, not commercial interests of big business. I would encourage the commission to offer further insight into the talks.”

Meanwhile, Irish MEP Nessa Childers has submitted several parliamentary questions on what she described as “the commission’s smoke-screening of its dealings with big tobacco in trade talks.”

She underlined that, “this level of secrecy undermines the legitimacy of trade talks and raises questions about the propriety of the commission’s contacts with big tobacco when they should be making them transparent and kept to the minimum necessary to regulate this industry, in accordance with world health organisation rules that it has subscribed to.”

Childers said she “would like to see if the commission can shed light on the inconsistencies within secretary-general Day’s response and between it and yesterday’s [Wednesday] denial from the commission’s team in charge of EU-US trade talks that these documents have nothing to do with the TTIP agreement under negotiation.”

The commission has repeatedly argued that the documents were censured because they “contain elements that relate to [its] negotiating position with regards to tobacco in the ongoing bilateral negotiations for a free trade agreement with the USA and Japan.”

According to Childers, “in the face of all these tarred pages, they seem not only to be very much connected, but also that the commission is happy to provide the industry with information they don’t want the public to see.”

CEO said in a statement that it was “deeply concerned about the commission’s secrecy around its relations with tobacco industry lobbyists and more widely the secrecy around its international trade negotiations”.

The campaign group said they will file a complaint with European ombudsman Emily O’Reilly, who is due to publish the results of her investigation into tobacco lobbying in the coming weeks.

About the author
Julie Levy-Abegnoli is a journalist and editorial assistant for the Parliament Magazine

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