The 13th round of TTIP negotiations hits a wall of intense protests and growing concerns

Cecilia___Malmström

Cecilia Malmström, Member of the EC in charge of Trade, gave a press conference on Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) announcing the end of the legal review of this agreement. © European Union , 2016 / Source: EC – Audiovisual Service / Photo: Eric Vidal

The week of the 13th round of the Transatlantic Trade and Investments Partnership negotiations, which are currently held in New York City, did not start too well for the EU-US deal.

About 35,000 demonstrators marched in the streets of Hannover last Saturday, a day ahead of US President Barack Obama’s visit to the German city, to say no the mammoth trade pact. Environmental activists, trade unionists, consumer protection groups demonstrated with slogans such as “Yes We Can – Stop TTIP!”. They protested that European citizens do not want the trade deal with US to continue. And that is definitely not the only headache for TTIP backers.

German concerns

The truth is that there is much more than an “anti-free-trade alliance” movement, consisting of “No-TTIP” campaigners and ideologists who fear that the pact could threaten Germany’s environmental and legal standards. The growing scepticism towards an EU-US trade deal, which showed its first signs last year, is purportedly becoming bigger, as freshly released surveys and studies prove too. A recent survey by Germany’s Bertelsmann Foundation indeed found that only one in five Germans are in favour of TTIP. The survey, which was conducted by YouGov for the Bertelsmann Foundation, showed that only 17 percent of the Germans believe TTIP is a good thing, a figure that went down from 55 percent two years ago. And that is a major point of concern.

Obama’s push

The US President Obama wanted to give an extra boost to TTIP from day 1 of his European visit, and said the European Union and United States must move forward with a trade free trade accord. “It is indisputable” that free trade has “strengthened the US economy” and also has brought “enormous benefits to countries that engage in it”, Obama said, as reported by Reuters. “The Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership is one of the best ways to promote growth and create jobs”, Obama told German newspaper Bild in an interview.

Obama indeed was expected to shake the European place and to promote the EU-US deal, as it is widely believed that a progress with TTIP is one of the last main objectives of his cabinet before the end of the mandate. However, President Obama’s push for TTIP cannot hide a growing lack of interest that is reportedly plaguing America as well, especially in view of the US elections next November. And that is the second point of concern.

More TTIP alarms

Indeed the research conducted by Bertelsmann Foundation was also based US data, and ultimately showed that in the United States only 18 percent support the deal compared to 53 percent in 2014. Nearly half of US respondents said they did not know enough about the agreement to voice an opinion.
Also US trade representative Michael Froman did not sound too optimistic lately. Last week, while interviewed by the Financial Times, Mr. Froman said the opportunity to conclude TTIP negotiations was “slipping away”. “There really is this window of opportunity which isn’t necessarily going to be there forever,” he reportedly said.

On top of that, major western media report that the current leading candidates for the Presidency are not exactly promoting free trade deals. Hillary Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner, has openly criticised the US-Pacific deal, while Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Bernie Sanders have been sharply critical of free trade deals in general and released mixed reviews around the TTIP.

“US dependency”

This last point is very important, as the American support is definitely crucial toward an agreement of the EU-US pact. The German Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel made it very clear when he said on Wednesday he believes that success or failure of the negotiations “very much depends” on United States. “Whether there is any perspective at all for TTIP very much depends on whether the Americans have considerable reason to have this agreement,” Mr. Gabriel told a news conference to present updated German growth forecasts. “If the United States don’t want to open up their market, we need no trade deal”. Gabriel also said negotiations are currently “frozen up”.

The “French front”

And that’s not all. Concerns come also from major EU member states such as France. Last week, exactly seven days ago, the French Trade Minister Matthias Fekl has threatened to stall further negotiations on a new EU-U.S. free trade deal barring significant progress “in coming months”. “I indicated in September that if there was no progress, we should end the negotiations. That option is still on the table,” Fekl said on the sidelines of a conference about the TTIP.

Besides, France is currently starting to focus on the elections next year. The campaigning is actually getting under way for a presidential election in April-May 2017, and President Francois Holland knows that backing a TTIP deal, already deeply unpopular with the French left as well as the country’s powerful agricultural lobby, could be a very tricky exercise. “We’re aware that some countries want to get a deal at all costs within the US time frame”, Mr. Fekl reportedly said. “That’s not the French approach”.

The Dutch knot

Last but not least, there might be a fourth, complicated gordian knot for TTIP. Allegedly Dutch voters would be seeking a referendum on the TTIP to put it under discussion, as it basically happened only days ago on the EU-Ukraine association agreement. Sources revealed that about 100,000 Dutch citizens have already signed a petition to demand a referendum on the EU-US gigantic trade pact. The 300,000 signatures threshold to have a referendum issued still looks far, although if it happened with the Ukraine plebiscite, there are growing signs confirming the TTIP could be the next one.

According to the country’s Advisory Referendum Act (ARA), a law that The Netherlands adopted last year and that allows its citizens to request a referendum for any primary legislation, Dutch voters can have their say also on consultations and treaty ratifications. Even though non-binding and purely consultative, a strong “No” to TTIP by Dutch voters in a subsequent referendum would represent an enormous issue for the EU-US pact, which would then go on top of an already quite long list.

In need of a better EU Commission

All in all, at this point the TTIP negotiations seem to be hitting a big wall. This clearly shows that the EU Commission cannot just close deals on behalf of the European citizen but without her clear consent. In this developed part of the world people read and people know what affects their lives. Most importantly, people protest. A massive trade deal that can insert GMOs in the European diet in one day or endanger the environment, cannot be a negotiation exercise of too well paid untaxed bureaucrats.

Unfortunately, the truth is that TTIP was handled wrong from day one and the opposition was naively downplayed. The EU Commission at some point should take a break from being the large Policy conglomerate that is detached from the European peoples and instead start listening more to them. Maybe then it can serve better its role not only in Brussels, but also in Europe.

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