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The TTIP Controversy

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Opposition to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the US and the EU is strongest in Germany, one of the biggest exporting nations on Earth. Even those in favor of the deal are growing pessimistic that the new free trade zone will materialize. 

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Last week, US President Barack Obama joined Chancellor Angela Merkel in Hanover for the German trade fair for industrial technology, or CeBIT. Both are strongly advocating on behalf of TTIP, the transatlantic free trade agreement currently being negotiated by Brussels and Washington. Fearing the president’s visit could speed up talks, consumer protection bodies, environmental organizations, and other civil society groups organized one of the largest anti-TTIP demonstrations since negotiations began in 2013. According to the Hanover police, around 35,000 people joined the demonstrations, though organizers spoke of 95,000.

As the biggest export nation in Europe, Germany’s internal resistance to the trade agreement seems paradoxical to onlookers from abroad. EU Commissioner for Trade Cecilia Malmström expressed her amazement, saying she found the resistance “strange” and fears about the trade agreement “difficult to understand.” Der Spiegel reported that Malmström hopes President Obama’s visit will help to diffuse worries about the deal. Whilst TTIP is by no means an uncontroversial topic on either side of the Atlantic, German citizens seem particularly concerned about hidden dangers of the agreement.

What then are the protesters concerns?

A frequently cited reason for protest are fears of a loss of democracy as a result of the deal. TTIP regulations include provisions for an extrajudicial international court of arbitration to protect investors. Whilst it is not clear whether this will indeed be part of the final agreement, it would allow commercial investors to bypass existing national courts and sue states through these extrajudicial channels. These courts of arbitration are already part of various German trade agreements, but according to the TTIP opposition the new deal would effectively mean the “end of democracy” as a “shadow judiciary” would form and hollow out the democratic system. The worry is that private companies could indirectly influence policy making. Deutsche Welle cites one of the protesters in Hanover as saying: “You might as well let industry form part of the parliament and say: sure, go ahead!”

Since the EU commission failed to send documents detailing the status of TTIP negotiations to national parliaments in August last year, a lack of transparency has also been among the top causes of protest. According to DIE ZEIT, even the German Economics Minister Sigmar Gabriel joined protesters in their demands, writing a letter to Malmström that criticized her failure to provide updates and information on TTIP talks. Since then, Malmström has tried to counteract perceptions that the deal is being drawn up behind closed doors. An article by Süddeutsche Zeitung reports on Malmström’s efforts to increase transparency: the trade commissioner pointed out that official documents relating to the negotiations are available online and at the German Ministry of Economics. Nevertheless, protesters continue to attack the negotiations for lack of transparency, portraying TTIP as a Trojan horse designed to further the interests of big business alone. In a video podcast, the German chancellor rejects such criticism, stating it was impossible to make negotiations even more transparent than they already are.

The third top reservation about TTIP concerns worries about product standards, consumer protection, and labor market regulations. German environmentalists, for instance, see it as their responsibility to oppose TTIP and protect citizens against environmentally and medically controversial foods from the US. Genetically modified crops, chickens bathed in chlorine, and pesticides that are banned in Germany could be allowed to enter the German market should the deal be ratified, say anti-TTIP campaigners. But it is not just the environmentalists who worry the deal would negatively affect German consumers. According to Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), 48 percent of Germans think consumer rights would be negatively affected by the deal, and only 26 percent believe it would have a positive effect on the German economy. According to DIE ZEIT, however, negotiations are slow and difficult not because negotiators are trying to appease critics but because both the EU and the US are unwilling to open their markets to each other quite as much as originally planned.

An article in Der Tagesspiegel suggests that protests may be fueled by anti-Americanism rather than real concerns about the trade agreement, and holds Campact, the main organizer of anti-TTIP protests, responsible for spreading unfounded fears about the deal. DIE ZEIT, however, reports Campact CEO Christoph Bautz expressively denying this as the organization’s motivation, and cites him as saying that he was actually worried that “people with anti-American resentments” could join the demonstration.

Merkel supports TTIP and sees the agreement as hugely beneficial for German and European economic futures. However, according to Der Spiegel, even her own vice chancellor Sigmar Gabriel would secretly like to call off negotiations, as TTIP is hugely unpopular amongst social democrats. At CeBIT he criticized the US for refusing to open its markets, stating that “free trade only makes sense if the markets are actually open,” reports FAZ. Sarah Wagenknecht from the leftist party Die Linke called for a referendum on TTIP, arguing that the government should not be allowed to close a deal that is opposed by the majority of the population.

Both supporters and critics of the deal feel time is of the essence: those in favor of TTIP hope for a swift conclusion of negotiations to avoid a delay of the deal under a new American administration in 2017. Those opposing are also aware of the time pressure, and trying to prevent an acceleration of the process. DIE ZEIT interpreted Obama’s and Merkel’s words at the Hanover trade fair to hurry TTIP along as a sign that they are no longer confident that negotiations will be concluded under the Obama administration.

Shortly after Obama’s visit Greenpeace published secret documents on the state of negotiations. FAZ reports that these documents do not actually offer any new information – it is an unfinished version of the draft contract and none of the concerns of the opposition are fully verified or proven wrong. Nor are the US or EU ngeotiating positions news to anyone who has been following the debate. Yet they show how far apart the two would-be trade partners really are. As Der Spiegel reports, even those in favor of the deal are growing pessimistic that TTIP will be achieved.