Sigmar Gabriel, the Social Democratic Party leader and economics minister, logged a complete success at a party conference over the weekend. A complete victory, that is, if you take a superficial look at what he did.
He managed to control the free trade opponents within his own party and avoid an SPD blockade of the free trade talks between the European Union and the United States.
The two sides are currently negotiating terms of the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP. The SPD’s left wing has been especially critical of the pacts and the talks themselves, and had threatened to halt the negotiations.
Mr. Gabriel has repeatedly said that he believes that TTIP offers more opportunities than risks.
Mr. Gabriel’s maneuvering saved Germany’s ruling political coalition, of which the SPD is the junior partner, from a mid-term catastrophe.
But Mr. Gabriel’s work at convincing the rank and file is far from over.
The decision at Saturday’s party convention is not an all-clear for the TTIP talks, rather the exact opposite. The Social Democrats adopted a position paper formulated by Mr. Gabriel’s economics ministry and Federation of German Trade Unions that takes issue with 14 points in TTIP.
The position paper is in no way an endorsement of the negotiations. On the contrary, it lists many reservations.
These begin with workers’ rights, consumer protection laws, social and environmental standards and the quality of basic public services in the European Union. Criticisms are especially severe of a proposed transatlantic arbitration court, which would settle disagreements between E.U. and U.S. businesses, and could possibly award U.S. companies damages in Europe. These courts should be rejected, the paper says, short and sweet.
Mr. Gabriel has many more discussions with the SPD rank and file ahead of him. However, there are two points which are hopeful for the talks: In recent weeks Mr. Gabriel has repeatedly said he believes that TTIP offers more opportunities than risks.
He knows that, in competition with the rapidly growing economies and economic zones, the only chance Europeans and Americans have is if they can achieve a big breakthrough via free trade. At the same time he wants to show that the SPD is better off with a pro-business stance.
Mr. Gabriel is not interested in a “TTIP-lite.”
On top of that, after federal elections last September, Mr. Gabriel showed impressively that he can lead his party. The rank and file’s decision to join the German coalition government led by Angela Merkel and the Christian Democrats was anything but a given. He can take a great part of the credit for getting that vote.
It will only be smooth sailing again if Mr. Gabriel can reproduce his success for TTIP.
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