It is a Tuesday night in a back courtyard near the central train station in the western German city of Münster. Shortly after 7 p.m., 10 people gather in the Academy for Theology and Politics. According to its website, the group is made up of “engaged citizens and representatives of diverse organizations.” And it continues: “We are developing joint activities against the impending free trade agreement TTIP.”
Men and women of all ages are present. For more than a year they have been coming every two weeks to the dreary building, planning demonstrations against the closed-door negotiations being held in Brussels and Washington, gathering signatures against the secret plans of the governments, which will make the corporations almighty and the citizens powerless. That is how they see things here.
Today they want to talk about what they want to get started with the campaign day against TTIP. On April 18 there will be a national campaign to collect signatures for a European citizens’ initiative. So far, more than 1.6 million signatures have been gathered. In two weeks they want to break the 2 million mark. But there is also this problem: how to deal with the mainstream press.
The group has an intense discussion over whether or not they want to allow journalists to sit in on their “round table” talk. They discuss whether they should make public the reasons why they want to stop the free trade agreement, and how they want to convince the citizens of their position.
After 10 minutes of arguing they take a vote. Then the decision is clear: the group that sees democracy being threatened by the secret negotiations in Brussels and Washington will meet today behind closed doors. The press must wait outside.
Distrust. This is a word that not only best describes the small group of activists from Münster, but also the entire movement of TTIP critics. They distrust the powerful, Brussels, Washington, Berlin, the corporations, their experts, the media that is allied with them. They distrust everyone who maintains that a free trade and investment agreement with the United States, would increase prosperity in Germany and throughout Europe.
“When the elite tout that there will be advantages for everyone, many citizens’ ears prick up and they become skeptical,” said Dieter Rucht, a Berlin-based sociologist who studies protest movements. After all, the politicians, economists and business journalists had also promised that the worldwide liberalization of the markets would do the same. And then came the financial crisis.
The broad protest against TTIP in Germany is primarily an expression of a crisis of confidence, because trust is at issue here. The free trade agreement between the E.U. and Canada, the little brother of the agreement with the United States, is 1,500 pages long and full of articles which are difficult to understand. It is almost impossible for those who are not experts to get an idea of what the consequences for the society will be.
“When the elite tout that there will be advantages for everyone, many citizens’ ears prick up and they become skeptical.”
The crucial question is therefore not: Who is right, the proponents or opponents? But rather: Whom do I believe? A survey conducted by the market research firm YouGov at the end of March found that 43 percent of respondents in Germany believe that TTIP is bad for the country. Only 26 percent still support the treaty. One could say that when it comes to such an important question, more citizens trust anti-TTIP activists like Maritta Strasser and Pia Eberhardt than they do Chancellor Angela Merkel and Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel.
Ms. Strasser, 50, and Ms. Eberhardt, 36, are figureheads of the grassroots campaign against TTIP. The media seeks people to latch onto, and they found these two women, who in turn are looking for the publicity. The contrast produces good pictures: On the one side are the activists, the red-haired Ms. Strasser or the petite Ms. Eberhardt with her tattooed arms and piercings, on the other side are the stiff Brussels bureaucrats or slick executives bearing down on them.
Both women are taking on different roles. Ms. Eberhardt, a political scientist, offers her expertise. Working for “Corporate Europe Observatory,” an organization in Brussels critical of lobbying, she pores over treaty texts and researches her favorite theme, arbitration courts for investors. Her public indictment, “Profiting from Injustice,” which was released in 2012, supplied the movement with arguments for why the, until recently largely unknown, courts will, with TTIP, threaten democracy and the constitutional state.
Ms. Strasser is a communications expert, who once served as spokeswoman for the former justice minister, Herta Däubler-Gmelin, a member of the center-left Social Democrats. Ms. Strasser is now trying to mobilize as many people as possible with her campaign organization Campact.
She started the signature campaign “Stop TTIP” in 2013, and to date 650,000 people have taken part in it, mostly online. And she is behind the Europe-wide citizens’ initiative, which is largely a German initiative: almost 1 million of the 1.6 million signatories are German.
Both women have been engaged for many years in groups critical of globalization, and have been fighting for more influence for citizens and for “progressive politics,” as Ms. Strasser, the daughter of the SPD visionary and former PEN Germany president, Johano Strasser, likes to say.
In the past, the movement has had some successes, such as the collapse of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) three years ago after public protests.
The activists have forged tight cross-border connections from their past battles, and they exchange information through mailing lists and coordinate their approach via teleconferences. There are now so many conferences that they account for almost all of Ms. Strasser’s workday.
With TTIP, they are now reaching for the first time broad population groups outside of the leftist camp. For one thing, that is due to the agreement itself. Unlike other previous trade agreements, this one does not involve the dismantling of customs, but “the agreement digs deep into the democratic regulatory procedures and affects wide sections of organized civil society,” said Ms. Eberhardt.
In addition, there is the fact that the agreement is still being negotiated, and that is being done behind closed doors. Therefore, people can cherry-pick issues that they oppose in the agreement: The head of the services trade union Ver.di has railed against the impending privatization of public welfare benefits, the head of the Academy of Arts is fighting for more subsidies for museums and theaters, the municipal associations are warning of market openings of the water supply or local public transportation. Those benefitting from the status quo are sounding a precautionary alarm.
The second reason is the growing distrust of the powerful, which the activists like to make use of. “Many people apparently see us representing their interests more than the E.U. Commission or the German federal government,” said Ms. Strasser.
She said it is the other side’s fault, because the E.U. Commission, for example, has behaved in an arrogant and opaque manner. The bureaucrats are not used to contact with the citizens at all. “When we hand them the signatures, they consider it downright impertinence,” she told Handelsblatt.
Video: An anti-TTIP protest video made by Campact.
Washington, she said, did nothing to clear things up after the Snowden revelations about NSA spying. And, she said, the German government cannot explain “where the advantages from TTIP lie for us citizens.” But the reputation of business, and in particular corporations, is particularly bad.
At the citizens’ meeting in Münster on that Tuesday night, Jörg Rostek finally came to speak with the press. He said right away that he could not speak for everyone, but he had some things to add about TTIP.
Mr. Rostek, 33, is a member of the regional executive committee of “More Democracy,” an organization that supports referenda on the national level. He said that if the agreement comes to pass, citizens will have less of a voice, there would be fewer opportunities to fight back against major corporations, which are already defining the world’s course.
For him, TTIP has become a symbol of a globalized world in which powerful industries make common cause with politicians. “The scale is tipped against the citizens as it is,” he said. “TTIP would give another scoop of power to the corporate side. I don’t want that.”
The primary driving factor behind Ms. Eberhardt’s organization is to watch those corporate lobbyists in Brussels carefully. She said that in her position she has “seen plenty of cases in which corporations have lobbied against the national economic interests because of their profit motives.” For example, when banks have lobbied against financial stability or chemical companies against environmental and consumer protections.
This use of these popular bogeymen works well at whipping up support for the cause. Populism and simplification are not foreign concepts to the TTIP opponents, as Ms. Strasser admits. “We divide the gray into black and white, that is the essence of campaigns,” she said. By doing so, they can reach people quickly and pull them into the debate. “Ultimately, we also carry out political education,” she said.
Things are currently going well for the opponents of the free trade agreement. They are not discouraged by the fact that hardly anyone in Eastern or Southern Europe has shown much interest in TTIP so far. Ms. Strasser thinks that is only a matter of time, since the issue is ripe for campaigns everywhere.
But still, the activists are not so sure they will be victorious, and are rather pessimistic, said Ms. Eberhardt. “In the end, TTIP is a very important project for the elites on both sides of the Atlantic,” she said. She said so far the European Commission has only changed its tone, but the content of its positions remains unchanged despite all of the criticism. “We are a long way off from preventing the agreement,” she said.
But they have never been so close.
Simon Book is a features writer for Handelsblatt. Till Hoppe is based in the Berlin bureau where he covers politics for the paper. To contact that authors: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com.