“Obama and Merkel are coming. Demo: Stop TTIP and CETA!”
That is the slogan being spread through social media and on posters across Germany. It is intended to rally the troops to Hanover this Saturday on the eve of a visit by U.S. President Barack Obama.
Organizers estimate tens of thousands will amass to protest the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership deal between the European Union and the United States, and its Canadian counterpart, called CETA.
Mr. Obama’s visit to open the Hannover Messe trade fair alongside Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday is regarded as part of an efforts to kickstart TTIP ahead of the 13th round of negotiations next week in New York.
While it may be one of the United State’s best trading partners in Europe, Mr. Obama is entering hostile territory in Germany.
Along with Austria, the European country has the least enthusiasm for and the most skepticism about the all-encompassing trade deal, according to polls.
Last October, despite the country being gripped by the refugee crisis, an anti-TTIP rally in Berlin drew 150,000 to 250,000 people, depending on whether you accept the official count or the demo organizers’ numbers.
The anti-TTIP movement is hoping for another big turnout on Saturday.
“There is nothing in the agreement about raising standards, and that is exactly the problem. In the future it will be even harder to strengthen or raise standards.”
“We are expecting several tens of thousands,” said Roland Süss, a trade expert with activist group ATTAC, which has 90,000 members in Europe. The group’s members typically are vocal critics of the excesses of conventional capitalism, strong defenders of the environment and opponents of government privatization efforts.
Yet the thousands planning to meet in Hanover are only the tip of the iceberg in Germany.
A survey released Thursday in Berlin showed that only one in five Germans think TTIP is a good thing, down from 55 percent in 2014.
The poll by YouGov for the Bertelsmann Foundation, found that while two years ago 88 percent of Germans favored free trade in general, by February only about half of Germans considered free trade a good idea. More than a quarter reject it entirely.
“Support for trade agreements is fading in a country that views itself as the global export champion. Trade is a key driver of the German economy,” Aart De Geus, head of the Bertelsmann Foundation, said.
For those backing the deal, it is a conundrum that people in a country that relies on and benefits from global trade would want to block a deal like this.
After all, Germany prides itself on being an “Export Meister.” It is the world’s third-largest exporter with €1.2 trillion worth of goods and services traded abroad in 2015.
And trade ties with the United States are a big part of that. The United States is the biggest buyer of German exports outside the E.U., and Germany is the U.S.’s most important trading partner in Europe. At the end of 2015, bilateral trade was worth approximately $174 billion, according to the German Foreign Office.
Proponents argue TTIP will only enhance those ties, creating growth and jobs on both sides of the Atlantic.
But many non-profits, political groups and trade unions, which have led the charge against the deal, question those assertions and argue it’s not free trade per se they are opposed to.
“This is not about being against a trade deal in a classic way,” said Ernst-Christoph Stolper, an economic expert with the non-profit Friends of the Earth Germany, or BUND.
Opponents such as Mr. Stolper say their beef is not about removing tariffs but that the deal will introduce a host of other controversial elements, such as investor protection or the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS), the special arbitration panels for foreign investors to sue national governments.
They also regard it as a push towards less regulation, more privatization and a harmonization of standards, which many Germans typically fear will lower standards on the environment, labor protection and food production. Some also argue that a free trade deal between two prosperous blocs will come at the expense of poorer regions.
Mr. Süss of ATTAC told Handelsblatt Global Edition. “We say that we don’t agree with a trade deal in this form. We want fair global trade and we think the negotiations must be stopped and a different process begun.”
Anti-TTIP protestors tend to be very critical of the way the talks, which began in 2013, are being held behind closed doors on a deal that will affect hundreds of millions of people on both sides of the Atlantic. The transparency issue is one of those that has caused the most unease among the general public, according to the Bertelsmann Foundation survey.
Another big stumbling block to reaching a deal has been the ISDS, which the European Parliament rejected in a resolution last summer.
Sabine Stephan, an economist at the Macroeconomic Policy Institute, a Düsseldorf-based think tank with ties to labor unions, argues that the ISDS mechanism would not just even the playing field, but actually favor foreign companies. “They would get much more rights than domestic investors,” she told Handelsblatt Global Edition.
Meanwhile, some in Germany are worried about declines in food hygiene and production standards as a result of TTIP. One of the rallying cries used by some opponents is the claim that raw chicken in Europe would be suddenly chlorinated to remove bacteria, a practice that is used by the U.S. poultry farming industry.
“It was a symbol. It is a good example of how pressure can be applied to existing standards and conditions,” Ms. Stephan said. “Higher standards would be reduced to a cost problem, and many standards are extremely important to consumers.”
For Thilo Bode, founder and director of consumer rights group Foodwatch, it’s not so much that German or European standards are necessarily higher and need to be protected, but that TTIP would make it much more difficult to improve standards.
“The chlorinated chicken is a nice symbol, but it doesn’t adequately describe the problem. It’s not such a big deal but it stands for the different standards and the main problem is not that existing standards will be diluted. There are bad standards on both sides of the Atlantic,” he told Handelsblatt Global Edition. “Improving food labelling, or genetic modification labelling, or improving the protection against toxic chemicals, that will all be made more difficult.”
A big problem for Foodwatch and other activist groups is that the deal, they said, would solidify international law, making it will be more difficult to change elements going forward.
“There is nothing in the agreement about raising standards, and that is exactly the problem. In the future it will be even harder to strengthen or raise standards,” Mr. Bode said.
The suspicions in Europe go beyond food standards, to basic, different approaches to business and the economy, said Peter Sparding of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
“There is a very high skepticism in Germany about the American way of doing business,” he said, pointing to the big debate in Germany a decade ago about U.S. hedge funds, with the then-Social Democrat leader, Franz Münterfering, who described them as “locusts.”
“There is a very high skepticism in Germany about the American way of doing business.”
The anti-TTIP movement has also also fed on feelings that citizens are losing personal control in the era of globalization. “You see similar trends in E.U. criticism, but you can project all the fears one might have onto the U.S. It has very powerful companies and very powerful lawyers,” Mr. Sparding said.
And then there was the fact that the talks commenced just as the Edward Snowden revelations about NSA spying emerged, which undermined Germans’ willingness to closer ties with the United States.
“So it wasn’t the best moment for trans-Atlantic endeavors in Germany in general,” said Mr. Sparding, who is German and is based in Washington.
In fact, general trust in the United States among Germans has declined, according to recent polls. Last year, a Pew Research Center study of international attitudes towards the United States found that 45 percent of Germans had a negative view of the United States, compared to only 33 percent in 2009.
And then there is the rise of populist movements on both sides of the Atlantic, including the right-wing Alternative for Germany and Donald Trump, who are increasingly using protectionist rhetoric and attacking free trade.
However, for Mr. Bode, head of Foodwatch, the movement against TTIP is a broader popular and not confined to the usual suspects of the anti-globalization movement or the populist left and right.
“The majority is against it; it is not ignorant people, all these people going on the big demos, they are the middle classes,” Mr. Bode told Handelsblatt Global Edition. “They are not people who are opposed to the economy, or the market economy. They are against TTIP because they have the feeling that they are being taken to the cleaners. It is not a game, it is another attack on the parliament’s right to govern. It is yet another decision where the interests of the people take second place.”
Ms. Stephan, the economist, agrees that opposition should not be painted as hostility in Europe toward the United States. “The conflict of interest is not between the E.U. and the U.S.,” she told Handelsblatt Global Edition. “The entire negotiation process has shown that big transnational global companies on both sides of the Atlantic have the same interests, and often have formulated the same positions, in order to push through their interests.”
In fact, the feeling is widespread amongst the TTIP opposition movement that the European Commission only has business interests at heart and workers and consumers are not as important.
“If you see how the Commission has presented its deregulation agenda, then it is all going in the same direction, less regulation, more free markets, and also with the austerity policy, less debt, more cuts,” says BUND’s Mr. Stolper. “And more and more people say that it cannot continue in this way.”
He argues that the agreement was first conceived before the financial crisis and is no longer relevant. “It’s a different world, with different problems.”
Yet, these feeling are widespread across Europe. It doesn’t explain why the anti-TTIP movement has so much resonance in Germany and Austria. What made a difference at the start, was also that a large non-profit and activist network had already amassed a lot of experience in various campaigns, particularly on environmental issues, including against nuclear power and nuclear waste disposal.
“The NGOs and the labor unions are better organized and networked in Germany and Austria and a lot of civil society groups have formed a broad association,” said Ms. Stephan. “The discussion has shown that so many different groups will be strongly disadvantaged by this agreement, and the people have realized that this free trade deal is not something abstract but something that can massively influence their lives.”
While some might question why Germany, which does so well from exports would oppose a free trade deal, ironically the strong economy could also be helping to boost the anti-TTIP movement. “In other countries, where you have more pressing economic issues, people might be spending less time worrying about how chickens are chlorinated,” Mr. Sparding said.
Mr. Süss of ATTAC admits that many Southern European countries “have completely different issues” to worry about, in terms of struggling with austerity measures and high unemployment.
However, the activists see the movement as increasingly spreading beyond German-speaking countries, with growing opposition in the United Kingdom, France and the Netherlands. The French opposition to TTIP is lead by the powerful agricultural lobby and this week members of the French government indicated it might block the deal.
“The opposition started in Germany and two or three other countries, but the longer we have lead the debate on this, the more other countries have joined in the discussion,” said Mr. Süss.
For example, the European Citizens Initiative, an umbrella group of anti- TTIP activists, collected over 3 million signatures which they handed into European Commission officials on October 7 last year, in support of the “Stop TTIP” initiative to halt the negotiations. According to Mr. Stolper of BUND, half a million of those were from the United Kingdom and more than 350,000 in France.
In general, the TTIP proponents have been caught off guard by a well-organized opposition movement, particularly in Germany.
“The narrative for supporters has been defensive from the beginning” said Mr. Sparding.
“Trade deals have always been passed in Germany. They didn’t think it would be different this time,” Ms. Stephan said.
While there has been some talk of a TTIP Light without the ISDS, that may not be acceptable to the American side.
“The European Commission still wants a comprehensive agreement, but they won’t get it, I am sure of that,” says Mr. Stolper. “I think the supporters of the TTIP agreement have more to be worried about than the opponents.”
As for Mr. Obama’s visit, it is a sign of just how worried Washington is about the deal.
“That’s quite strong signal of commitment to do what they can,” said Mr. Sparding of the German Marshall Fund. “But of course there’s a limit to what the U.S. side can do to help convince a skeptical German public.”
Siobhán Dowling covers German and European politics for Handelsblatt Global Edition. To contact her: email@example.com.