In July 2013, the European Commission started negotiations with the United States on the subject of Investment Protection and ISDS in the framework of wider talks on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). In the face of growing interest and public concern, the Commission decided to launch a public consultation on the matter in March 2014.

Together with Peter Muchlinski (SOAS School of Law), Horatia Muir Watt (Sciences Po Law School), and Gus Van Harten (Osgoode Hall Law School), Harm Schepel (Kent Law School) has authored a submission expressing deep concern about the planned Treaty in general and voicing strong criticism of the proposed provisions in particular. 

The authors are joined by nine members of academic staff from Kent Law School and over a hundred other prominent scholars from all over Europe and across the globe with expertise in trade and investment law, public international law and human rights, European Union law, global political economy, comparative law, public law and private law (a list of their names is available to view at the bottom of this page). Investment arbitration law, after all, is far too important to leave to just investment lawyers. 

The submission has been written in response to an online questionnaire compiled by the European Commission. The text is reproduced below question per question. It is also available in PDF and Word.

For further information contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

General assessment

What is your overall assessment of the proposed approach on substantive standards of protection and ISDS as a basis for investment negotiations between the EU and US? Do you see other ways for the EU to improve the investment system? Are there any other issues related to the topics covered by the questionnaire that you would like to address?

The Commission’s consultation document is an extraordinary text. On the one hand, the document contains fierce (and, in our opinion, fully justified) criticism of the international investment treaty arbitration regime as it has developed over the last two decades or so in a rapidly expanding number of awards under some 2800 Bilateral Investment Treaties, NAFTA, and the Energy Charter. Both explicitly and implicitly, the document disapproves of widespread expansive interpretations of nearly every provision found in investment treaties: from Most Favored Nation to umbrella clauses, from National Treatment to Fair and Equitable Treatment, from indirect expropriation to threshold issues of corporate nationality. The document also implicitly condemns the investment arbitration community for its failure to police itself adequately in matters of ethics, independence, competence, impartiality, and conflicts of interest. By implication, the document acknowledges that the institutional design of investment arbitration has given rise to reasonable perceptions that the decision-making process is biased against some states and investors as well as various interests of the general public.

And yet, on the other hand, the Commission seems content to entrust to these same actors the vital constitutional task of weighing and balancing the right to regulate of sovereign states and the property rights of foreign investors. This task is one of the most profound roles that can be assigned to any national or international judicial body. The proposed text requires arbitrators to determine whether discriminatory measures are ‘necessary’ in light of the relative importance of the values and interests the measures seek to further; whether the impact of non-discriminatory ‘indirect expropriations’ have a ‘manifestly excessive impact’ on investors in light of the regulatory purpose of these measures; whether other non discriminatory measures amount to arbitrariness or fall short of standards of due process and transparency, and whether prudential regulations are ‘more burdensome than necessary to achieve their aim’. To entrust these decisions to the very actors who have an apparent financial interest in the current situation and moreover remain unaccountable to society at large is a contentious situation. In light of the criticism inherent in the consultation document, not to mention the fundamental concerns of many observers of the system, there seems to be consensus that the regime falls short of the standards required of an institutionally independent and accountable dispute settlement system.

In our view, the logical implication of the Commission’s stance is to raise the key question that is not asked in the consultation document: why consider including investor-state arbitration in the TTIP at all? The rationale for bilateral investment treaties was traditionally linked to views about the potential impact on foreign investment of uncertainty caused by weak legal and judicial systems in host countries. While such a vision of failed statehood should in itself be examined further, it suffices to point out, in the context of the relationship between the US and the EU, that it is difficult to argue realistically that investors have cause to worry about domestic legal systems on either side of the Atlantic. Above all, with FDI stocks of over €1,5 trillion either way, it is implausible to claim that investors in fact have been deterred. It is true, as the Commission points out, that nine Member States already have BITs in place with the US. It may also be true that, for these nine Member States, the new arrangement might be a better alternative than ‘doing nothing.’ That, however, hardly seems enough reason to impose on the other two thirds of Member States a Treaty that profoundly challenges their judicial, legal and regulatory systems. The consultation document comes up with one additional argument: that the rights each party grants to its own citizens and companies ‘are not always guaranteed to foreigners and foreign investors.’ The claim is unsubstantiated. Even if it is accepted, there is no obvious reason why the incorporation in TTIP of a simple norm of non discriminatory legal protection and equal access to domestic courts could not address the problem perfectly adequately.

Commissioner De Gucht has announced an ambitious programme to‘re-do’ investment law, make the system ‘more transparent and impartial’, ‘build a legally water-tight system’, and ‘close these legal loopholes once and for all.’ As we have shown in detail, the consultation document and reference text fail to achieve this. Specifically, the text:

  • Fails to exclude acquisitions of sovereign debt instruments from the scope of the Treaty
  • Allows anyone with a substantial business activity in the home state who holds any ‘interest’ in an enterprise in the host state to bring a claim
  • Fails to spell out legal duties of investors in host states
  • Fails to control the expansion of investment arbitration to purely contractual claims
  • Fails to protect the ‘right to regulate’ as a general right of states alongside the many elaborate rights and protections of foreign investors, let alone as a component of the FET and Expropriation standards
  • Allows for unwarranted discretion for arbitration tribunals in various ‘necessity’ tests
  • Fails to further the stated principle of favoring domestic court proceedings
  • Fails to regulate conflicts of interest in the adjudicative process
  • Fails to formulate a policy on appellate mechanisms with any precision
  • Fails to formulate a policy on avoiding ‘Treaty shopping’ with any precision
  • and Fails to formulate a policy on third party submissions with any precision.

The text, in fairness, is rather better than many Investment Treaties. Some of its flaws, as we have discussed, could be addressed. But the nature of the problems associated with investor-state arbitration is not quite as straightforward as the Commission presents it. In a strange cat-and-mouse game, the Commission’s objective seems to be to ‘outwit’ arbitrators by closing down ‘loopholes’, eradicating discretion, and putting in place firm ‘rules’ on transparency of proceedings and impartiality of arbitrators. Analysis of the consultation document and the reference text, however, does not allow for the conclusion that this objective is likely to be achieved.

Yet investor-state arbitration raises some profoundly troublesome political issues regardless of arbitrator discretion. Investor-state arbitration delivers undue structural advantages to foreign investors and risks distorting the marketplace at the expense of domestically-owned companies. The benefits to foreign investors include their exclusive right of access to a special adjudicative forum, their ability to present facts and arguments in the absence of other parties whose rights and interests are affected, their exceptional role in determining the make-up of tribunals, their ability to enforce awards against states as sovereigns, the role of appointing bodies accountable directly to investors or major capital-exporting states, the absence of institutional safeguards of judicial independence that otherwise insulate adjudicators in asymmetrical adjudication from financial dependence on prospective claimants, and the bargaining advantages that can follow from these other benefits in foreign investors’ relations with legislatures, governments, and courts. At root, the system involves a shift in sovereign priorities toward the interests of foreign owners of major assets and away from those of other actors whose direct representation and participation is limited to democratic processes and judicial institutions.

In our view, this public consultation offers a good opportunity for the European Union to reflect seriously on its competences in matters of FDI under the Common Commercial Policy. As the Consultation Notice mentions, EU Member States have some 1400 BITs in place. The vast majority of them are concluded with developing countries. There is little evidence linking the conclusion of the Treaties to increased flows of FDI, and there is little evidence that they contribute to other development goals, such as encouraging good governance. In our view, these Investment Treaties and their arbitration mechanisms are in clear tension with the values of Articles 2 and 3 of the TEU that the Union is to promote in its relations with the wider world. Instead of seeking to extend the system of investment arbitration to relations with the United States, the Commission should be working towards redefining its policy on Investment Treaties, both new and existing, in ways that make it compatible with the founding values of the European Union. This requires a clearer balancing between investor rights and responsibilities and the preservation of national policy space to ensure that the interests of other stakeholders such as workers, consumers and the wider community as a whole are upheld by government.

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