BRUSSELS – The U.S. government’s restrictions on access to documents and its insistence on secrecy are undermining trust in trans-Atlantic trade talks and anti-terror data exchanges, the European Union’s transparency watchdog said Wednesday.
Discussions between the 28-nation EU and the U.S. to create a trade pact that would account for nearly half the global economy have dragged on since their launch in 2013, with the issue of secrecy prompting growing concern in Europe.
“There is a little clash of cultures, yes,” EU Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly told The Associated Press in an interview.
O’Reilly said some of the problems could be rooted in fears emanating from big scandals like the WikiLeaks diplomatic cables or the Edward Snowden revelations about U.S. data spying.
The motivation behind the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership is to create a market with common standards and regulations. The proposed trade pact touches on most aspects of commerce, from farming to health care to cosmetics.
O’Reilly is particularly concerned that the opaque nature of the negotiations is depriving people of information affecting their daily lives.
The EU Commission, which negotiates for its 28 member nations, is campaigning to have negotiating texts made public but anything that references the U.S. position has yet to make it into the public arena.
The U.S. mission in Brussels said in a statement that trade talks “must balance transparency, a principle the United States holds dear, with the confidentiality necessary for negotiators to share the information and have the frank conversations that are essential to concluding trade agreements.”
It also underlined that the U.S. and the EU Commission are making negotiating documents available to European officials in the member countries.
“I understand that these are trade negotiations and that people want to protect their negotiating positions,” O’Reilly said. “But there needs to be transparency at the point of draft decisions.”
O’Reilly recently walked away from a meeting on transparency with the U.S. ambassador even though the two have good personal contacts.
“He didn’t get my role as European Ombudsman and I didn’t get his not getting my role as Ombudsman,” she said. “They weren’t trusting EU institutions and I thought that was a problem.”
Another concern stems from the U.S. Treasury’s refusal to allow what she considers to be proper EU oversight of the agreement under which the United States tracks terrorist finances using personal data from Europe. The terror financing agreement has the EU police agency Europol supervise the way things are done on the European side and issue regular reports on the process.
Recently, O’Reilly was denied access to a Europol report by the U.S. Treasury.
“For the first time in its 20-year history, the European Ombudsman was denied its right under statute to inspect an EU institution document, even under the guarantee of full confidentiality,” O’Reilly told EU lawmakers.
EU Parliament lawyers have been dealing with the issue but the U.S. Treasury insists it is in full compliance on oversight of the agreement and that the lawyers concur.
“The Terrorist Finance Tracking Program is essential for tracking and pursuing terrorists worldwide, and we will continue to work closely with all of our European counterparts to implement the program with as much transparency as possible,” Treasury spokesperson Hagar Chemali said. “The European Ombudsman has acknowledged the European Parliament Legal Services’ determination that Europol acted appropriately in denying her access to the classified document.”
At her office in Brussels — within easy reach of all the main EU institutions — O’Reilly wondered aloud how the EU Commission can handle balancing public demands for transparency on issues that impact citizens’ lives while U.S. authorities seem to keep putting up roadblocks.
“We’re in a new era. The younger generation won’t understand the lack of transparency. They won’t tolerate it,” she said.