The European Union rejected arguments Monday that a trade agreement being negotiated with the United States would lower consumer protections, arguing that documents leaked by the Greenpeace environmental group did not reflect the final deal.
Once finalized, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) would create the world's largest free trade area with 800 million people. But its opponents fear that it could water down standards and give corporations more clout.
Greenpeace called Monday for the TTIP negotiations to be scrapped, arguing that the 248 pages of confidential documents it published on its website were proof of US efforts to circumvent EU consumer protections.
The talks are being held behind closed doors "with the intention of creating a powerful battering ram that can eliminate even the most firmly established climate and consumer protections," Juergen Knirsch of Greenpeace said at Berlin's annual IT conference re:publica.
The European Commission - which is leading the negotiations on behalf of the EU - should "press the restart button" because the current deal is "beyond redemption," he added.
But EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom rejected many of the accusations, arguing that the documents only reflect the negotiating positions of the EU and the US and not the final deal. It should come as no surprise that the two sides have differing views, she added.
"In areas where we are too far apart in a negotiation, we simply will not agree," Malmstrom wrote in a blog post. "No EU trade agreement will ever lower our level of protection of consumers, or food safety, or of the environment," she added.
The documents - initially shared with media outlets including the German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung and public broadcasters WDR and NDR - detail how the US is pressuring the bloc to buy more of its agricultural products, according to Greenpeace.
According to the group, the US is bargaining to weaken EU restrictions on genetically modified organisms and hormone-treated meat. TTIP, it says, would do away with the bloc's precautionary principle, which obliges regulatory caution when there is scientific doubt over a product's suitability for human consumption.
But the EU's chief negotiator, Ignacio Garcia Bercero, denied the claim, noting that it is reflected "nowhere" in the documents.
"We are fully maintaining the precautionary principle ... and quite frankly we do not intend to agree on anything that in any way weakens that principle," Garcia Bercero said in Brussels.
"Some of the points that Greenpeace has been making on the basis of these documents are flatly wrong," he added.
Activists have long called for the release of all TTIP texts. The EU has taken steps to improve transparency, but officials on both sides of the Atlantic have stressed the need to keep negotiations secret in order to strike the best deal possible.
The leak would be investigated, Garcia Bercero said, adding that Washington had expected the EU to protect the documents' confidentiality.
"All negotiations with a third country need to take place on the basis of mutual confidence," he said. "And now these documents include the American offer on a whole range of areas, while the US had always said that it did not want these positions to become public."
Garcia Bercero was in New York last week for the 13th round of negotiations since the TTIP talks were launched in 2013.
On Friday, both sides expressed hope of completing TTIP this year, despite US elections and a British vote on whether to stay in the EU. The deal has faced public opposition on both sides of the Atlantic.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is also pushing for the "speedy completion" of negotiations, her spokesman Steffen Seibert said Monday, noting that Berlin would not accept a deal that weakens climate and consumer protections.
US President Barack Obama has made trade a key item on his agenda for his remaining months in office.
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