Last October, the people crowding to Berlin’s government center were teachers, brewers, farmers, chemists and artists who turned out in the thousands to protest the proposed trans-Atlantic trade deal known as TTIP.
The 150,000 demonstrators called for greater transparency, and were angry that the negotiations over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership were taking place behind closed doors.
The numbers surprised even the demonstration’s organizers, who came from trade unions, environmental groups and opposition parties.
The question of transparency, like the treaty itself, has polarized people across the German political spectrum.
It’s a highly emotionalized debate, said Tanja Buzek, the Brussels representative for Verdi, the gigantic German services labor union, who said there was much more at stake with TTIP than in a typical trade deal.
“In the past, trade negotiations were about customs. TTIP is much broader in scope,” Ms. Buzek said.
Negotiators are working on a deal between the European Union and United States that would ease market access, roll back regulation, and broaden cooperation on both sides of the Atlantic. In Germany, TTIP is strongly opposed by those who fear it will undermine social and environmental standards, but is supported by those who say it will create jobs and strengthen economies in the new free trade zone.
Concerned citizens and critical journalists are stuck just having to deal in rumors.
But early missteps over the transparency of the negotiations have created lingering tension that is hindering agreement, according to Anton Hofreiter, parliamentary leader of Germany’s Green Party. “Concerned citizens and critical journalists are stuck just having to deal in rumors,” instead of facts, he said.
When TTIP negotiations began in 2013, the European Union dealt with them the same way the 28-nation bloc deals with trade projects, by holding closed-door negotiating sessions in Brussels and other E.U. capitals.
But calls for greater transparency grew, especially following a leak of information out of the talks in 2014.
The sudden interest caught European negotiators unawares and it took time to reveal more about the deal, said Volker Treier, head of foreign trade at the Association of German Chambers of Industry and Commerce.
The European Commission began publishing its negotiating texts along with explanatory guides outlining different aspects of the proposal on its website, starting in January 2015.
“We have published virtually all the E.U.’s negotiating positions and textual proposals,” wrote the union’s trade commissioner, Cecilia Malmström, in a blog post last summer. “Anyone can see them – they are on our website.”
The E.U.’s transparency initiative provides governments with access to negotiating texts, and makes joint E.U.-U.S. texts available at a secure location. A website for E.U. citizens featuring negotiating texts and explanatory guides is being set up, a spokesperson for the European Commissioner for Trade said.
The unusual disclosure efforts reflect the fact that in Brussels, the E.U.-U.S. trade negotiations are seen as the most transparent bilateral trade negotiations ever.
“That is a novelty, a level of transparency never reached before,” Andreas Audretsch, a spokesperson for the ministry, told Handelsblatt Global Edition.
Opponents of the deal say much more needs to be done to allay concerns about back-room talks.
Ms. Buzek, the Verdi union spokeswoman, said she is impatient with the European Union’s slow progress, arguing that only a small group of people have access to the negotiation documents and only thanks to massive public pressure.
A poll by German media company Bertelsmann of people in Germany and the United States found that although the European Commission is providing more information, most Germans didn’t perceive that to be the case. Rather, most people responded that the amount of access and background data to deal documents was unchanged.
Of those surveyed, 48 percent of Germans said the information status had remained the same. Thirty percent of Germans said they didn’t feel they knew enough about the issue to answer questions.
In an effort to address widespread concerns, the Bundestag set up a reading room in February for politicians.
Members of the Bundestag have access to all “consolidated texts,” the drafts that the European Union and the United States have agreed upon so far, but that might change over the course of the negotiations.
Parliamentarians have to register to use the special reading room inside the economics ministry, in one of eight reading booths. There are security protocols: cell phones, for example, are not allowed. “These are classified documents from the negotiations,” said Mr. Audretsch.
The politicians who have used the room so far criticized the restrictions and said that they cannot bring aides into the room, nor discuss the contents they read with anyone.
“I had to give in my mobile before I went in the room; you can’t make copies; someone’s sitting there the whole time and then there are the confidentiality clauses,” said Klaus Ernst, a Left Party politician.
Mr. Ernst told Handelsblatt Global Edition the documents are written in impenetrable bureaucratic, specialist English – difficult for non-experts to understand. “It’s written in the specialist language of trade negotiations. I had an interpreter in there with me but as the language was so technical, it was even hard for her,” he said.
That’s not transparency, Mr. Ernst said: “And it’s not democracy.” He called for the trade documents to be made available in all national languages and in good readable translations.
Three members of the Green Party are suing to win broader access to the TTIP documents. Mr. Hofreiter, who is leading the lawsuit, compared the limited access to the TTIP documents to the process of preparing legislation in the Bundestag. He called the situation “absurd.”
“For every tiny law in the Bundestag, we can discuss it with experts, lawyers, our aides and the public, whereas we can’t discuss this issue with anyone,” he said.
Mr. Hofreiter said the level of secrecy is influencing opinions about the trade pact. “The whole deal has been dealt with so intransparently that it strengthens criticism that something’s wrong,” the Green party member said. While he couldn’t discuss what he had read, it had made him more critical. “It’s worse than I thought,” he said.
The secrecy surrounding TTIP is a huge strategic mistake, Mr. Ernst said.
“It’s stupid to exclude citizens,” Mr. Ernst said. “It makes them suspicious. Citizens need to be able to see the negotiating positions of the E.U. and the U.S. to understand who wants what.”
Mr. Ernst has lengthy experience negotiating labor agreements. “You have to be able to say what people want. We were negotiating demands that we had formulated together with the people we were negotiating for,” he said.
Gary Hufbauer, a former U.S. trade negotiator with the Washington-based Petersen Institute for International Economics, said more transparency in trade negotiations has become unavoidable.
But it’s also made trade deals much more difficult to complete.
“There’s this huge human cry for more transparency, which translates into a request for real-time disclosure of draft texts,” Mr. Hufbauer told Handelsblatt Global Edition. “I think it’s going to be hard to go forward without more transparency.”
Mr. Hufbauer said publishing texts in advance makes it easier for opponents to pick the treaty apart.
It’s part of the reason he believes there is only about a 10-percent chance of U.S.-E.U. negotiators reaching agreement on the free-trade deal by the end of this year.
“The opponents gain more from transparency than the proponents,” he said.
Stephan Cremer, a lawyer who is part of the suit for greater access to TTIP information, rejected arguments privileging transparency in favor of negotiating positions. “It isn’t a worse outcome if the deal doesn’t go ahead, just a different one,” he said.
“The idea that publishing the state of negotiations could somehow damage their outcome is not a valid argument for me,” he told Handelsblatt Global Edition. “I don’t see the justification.”
From a legal point of view, Mr. Cremer said E.U. contracts require decisions to be made in the open and accessible to all citizens. Why not with TTIP, he asked?
Mr. Hofreiter said opposition to TTIP is growing throughout Europe, both about the contents of the deal and the lack of transparency.
Whatever the outcome, the transparency gains that have been made by the E.U. over TTIP should be applied to other trade deals in the future, Ms. Butzek said – as a minimum standard.
Allison Williams is deputy editor in chief at Handelsblatt Global Edition. Franziska Roscher is an editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition. To contact the authors: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org