Karel de Gucht, European Commissioner for Trade
Karel De Gucht is the present European Commissioner for Trade and co-chairs the Transatlantic Economic Council. Up to February 2010, he served as European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid. He is a former Belgian Deputy Prime Minister (2008-2009) and Foreign Minister (2004-2009).
1. What are the current priorities in your work as the chair of the Transatlantic Economic Council?
My first priority as the EU co-chair of the Transatlantic Economic Council is to re-launch the TEC process which lost a bit of momentum because the last two meetings took place respectively at the end of the last US Administration and at the end of the last EU Commission. Two years with no joint political steer is a long period of time for an initiative which is only 3 years old!
The TEC was set up to strengthen the transatlantic economic integration by fostering cooperation and reducing regulatory burdens. One of its paradoxes is that many regulatory cooperation activities contributing to the very objective of the TEC were initiated long before the TEC itself was launched. In addition, the TEC follows the launch of a number of other major political initiatives such as the New Transatlantic Agenda (NTA, 1995), the Transatlantic Economic Partnership (TEP, 1998), the Positive Agenda (2002) and the Economic Integration and Growth Initiative (2005). That succession of initiatives shows that the political vision of a more integrated transatlantic market place is not new, but that the exercise is extremely complex. We can argue that the time of familiarization between our regulators is over. Our challenge is to turn the series of existing regulatory dialogues into a more results-oriented instrument. We need a) to be able to remove or, probably easier, to prevent new divergences between our non tariff measures, b) to address strategic issues, ensuring that we maintain our leadership in the world in terms of high level of protection for our citizens and environment, and c) to examine our divergences and see whether we can give the political impulse to solve them without running the risk of getting stuck as we've been in the past with the chlorinated chicken. I need to develop the TEC as a forum where we can have a political look at technical problems and address divergences of approaches. These divergences are often not duly justified: They may be the result of different choices of our societies or the lack of consultation between our administrations. The problem is that these differences have led to important business interests on one or the other side, which makes it extremely difficult to align our systems once they have followed different avenues. You see, not an easy task!
This task requires a strong political involvement as it exceeds the power given to the two co-chairs. Others have to contribute to the TEC objectives, I mean legislators, consumers and businesses, and also Agencies, Standard setting bodies, etc. all more or less independent from the European Commission and US Administration! Convincing these actors of our economic life that we should integrate more our markets becomes another of my priorities.
2. How great is the potential for improving cooperation on anti-counterfeiting issues?
I should first mention that there is already a great deal of cooperation between the US customs and officials from EU Member States and the Commission, in particular the Directorate General Taxation and Custom Union. Activities have included joint seizure operations at both EU and U.S. ports and the publication of information to rights holders on how to work with Customs officials to obtain enforcement of intellectual property rights in both markets and to assist customs authorities with authenticating suspect shipments; capacity building assistance is also jointly provided to third countries.
The European Union and the USA have indeed a strong common interest in developing further their cooperation on the enforcement of intellectual property since not only jobs, but also security, health and incentives to stay creative depend on the protection of their respective market against intellectual property rights infringements.
Facing the same problems, the EU and US are natural allies. For example, China continues to be the main source country from which goods suspected of infringing an intellectual property right were sent to EU (16 % of all our imports come from China, and 64% of all counterfeit goods imported in the EU come from China as well) and the situation in the USA is similar to the one in the EU.
The potential for improvement lies notably in the setting of an international framework for IPR enforcement that is adequate, balanced and effective. In addition to the TRIPs Council in the World Trade Organisation, another forum where the USA and the EU discuss this framework (with other third parties) is the negotiation of the ACTA agreement (Anti Counterfeiting Trade Agreement). Negotiations are currently ongoing but our negotiators are facing certain difficulties, in particular the fact that the USA do not recognise geographic indications and wish to restrict the scope of ACTA to trademarks and copyright. We need to convince them that we should cooperate to chase those people counterfeiting not only Coca Cola but also Parma Ham or Champagne! From an EU perspective, the inclusion of geographic indications, designs and patents in the scope of the protected IPRs is one of the main issues to agree on with the USA to improve our cooperation, and I can't tell you today whether this will work. We want an ACTA which brings more that the current TRIPS system.
3. What is the greatest challenge to the transatlantic relationship?
It is probably to do better while, in practice, we have already an extraordinarily rich trade and investment relationship. Our trade disputes, if they are conspicuous, affect only an extremely small percentage of our exchanges. We absorb respectively much more of our exports than any other partner and we invest in each other economies much more than in any other country. This level of mutual investment characterizes the wealth of our economic links much better than any trade in goods or services figure. We have become essential partners, not necessarily because of our governments, but because of our businesses. It is now up to governments to do their bit by improving further that situation. A recent economic study contracted out by the Commission shows that if we were able to remove half the differences between our non tariff measures, we would increase together our GDP by 160 bn €.
We need, at all levels of power and democratic organisation, be it regulators, legislators, consumers, governments, businesses, NGOs, to understand that we have to pay attention to each other, that we can't continue to develop new pieces of legislation, new requirements, new standards, new procedures, etc without doing our best to try and proceed in a coordinated manner. We often refer to common values, but in the daily life of our companies and citizens, the differences between our systems have a cost which ends up being paid by consumers for no good reason. In addition these differences are sometimes exploited by other competitors to divide us on their markets. The greatest challenge is thus to make all actors in our legislative systems understand that it has become vital to build our future together and thus to increase all levels of mutual consultation and respective trust to a new ceiling.