Appeal filed over business lobbies’ privileged access in EU-India free trade talks

(by Pia Eberhardt, Corporate Europe Observatory)

On 10 July, lobby watchdog Corporate Europe Observatory appealed a ruling from the EU’s General Court over information related to the EU-India free trade talks, which the European Commission shared with corporate lobby groups but later withheld from the public.

In a ruling delivered in June 2013, the court in Luxembourg had concluded that the Commission did not violate EU transparency rules when it refused to fully release allegedly sensitive documents related to the EU-India trade deal. All of the documents – meeting reports, emails and a letter – had been sent to business groups like the European employers’ federation BusinessEurope, one of the most powerful corporate lobby groups in Brussels. While they received full versions of the documents, the Commission only released censored versions to Corporate Europe Observatory, arguing that full disclosure would undermine the EU’s international relations.

Why are corporate lobby groups allowed access to information that the general public are denied? How can documents that the Commission has already shared with the business community at large suddenly become confidential and a threat to the EU’s international relations when a public interest group asks for their disclosure? This is the core question raised by the lawsuit.

The appeal comes as the EU and India are reportedly trying to ink their proposed trade agreement before elections in both regions in 2014. Trade unions, farmers, patients’ organisations and other public interest groups have repeatedly sounded the alarm at the potentially devastating impacts of the deal, particularly on access to medicines and the livelihoods of Indian farmers and street traders.

While the negotiations between the two largest self-proclaimed democracies in the world have been kept out of the public arena, big business interests have been involved right from the start, as a 2010 report by Corporate Europe Observatory and India FDI Watch showed.

But the implications of the lawsuit go far beyond the EU-India trade agreement. The real issue at stake is whether the European Commission can continue negotiating backroom trade deals, together with, and for, a tiny elite of corporate lobby groups. At a time when more and more people fear that trade agreements threaten their basic rights to safe food, affordable medicines, a healthy environment and decent work, we cannot sit by and fail to challenge a ruling that risks legitimising the privileged access that the Commission grants big business over its policies. Corporate Europe Observatory is challenging this complicity, trying to redress the balance in favour of transparency and a trade policy in the interest of the many rather than the few.