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EU-US trade talks prompt German ire

AFP · 18 Apr 2015, 13:35

Published: 18 Apr 2015 13:35 GMT+02:00

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Say four simple letters, TTIP, to many Europeans and you're likely to be met with a blank stare.

But in Germany, where resistance to the proposed US-EU free trade pact or Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership is fiercest, the response is likely to be a volley of angry words.

In fact, in the whole of Europe, perhaps only in Austria and Luxembourg is the interest and opposition likely to be of a similar magnitude, as a new round of talks -- the ninth since last year -- kicks off in New York on Monday.

According to a YouGov poll published at the end of March, 43 percent of Germans believe that the pact, which has the government's support, would be "bad" for their country, compared with 30 percent who see it as "good."

Out of the seven countries polled, no other showed a similar level of scepticism.

The biggest bones of contention are health and safety standards, notably in the area of food, but also a clause which would allow corporations to sue governments in tribunals that are above national law.

Peter Sparding, a researcher at the German Marshall Fund in Washington, said that "given Germany's position as Europe's largest economy and one the world's leading traders, the debate in Germany has the potential to affect the scope and scale of a final agreement."

In many European countries, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and unions have joined in the anti-TTIP campaign. But in Germany, the scale of the opposition is huge.

Nearly 600 demonstrations are planned worldwide on Saturday in protest against free trade agreements, with more than 200 being held in Germany alone.

And out of 1.7 million signatures collected Europe-wide by the European collective "Stop TTIP", around one million came from Germany -- nearly 10 times as many as in France and 50 times as many as in Italy.

For Maritta Strasser, director of the anti-TTIP campaign at Campact, one of the NGOs behind "Stop TTIP", the extent of the opposition to the pact in Germany was largely due to the fact that it was made a topic of public debate early on.

But other Europeans were gradually waking up to the concerns expressed by Germans, she said.

"The more people know about it, the more they reject it," she said.

Tanja Boerzel, professor in political science at the Free University in Berlin, pointed to "reasons relating to our political culture and our history."

She believed there has long been a "latent anti-Americanism" that is fanning the anti-globalisation debate in Germany and a "fear of casino-capitalism" which many people feel that the United States embodies.

Recent revelations of spying and surveillance by US intelligence services, including the tapping of Chancellor Angela Merkel's mobile phone, have fuelled anti-US sentiment, she said.

The political left -- including many members of the Social Democrat SPD party -- is particularly critical of the United States.

And since the SPD is part of the ruling coalition with Merkel's conservative CDU-CSU parties, the SPD leadership finds itself in the schizophrenic position of defending a pact which many of its party members reject.

"The specific role of the Social-Democrats makes Germany a bit more predestined than others" to have a big TTIP debate, said Sparding.

And "because it has become a major debate everybody feels they have to take a stance," including the Church, but also professional associations which wouldn't normally get involved in issues of this nature, he said.

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Since Germany is one of the world's biggest exporters, it was taken for granted by many that the country would benefit from the pact. And that made TTIP's supporters, particularly business leaders, complacent, observers said.

Last month, the German industry federation BDI was forced to slash its estimate of the economic benefits for Europe of TTIP by a factor of 10.

The BDI had said online that the pact would result in an economic boost of about 100 billion euros ($106 billion) a year for the EU -- roughly the economic benefit other experts forecast over a decade.

Only after repeated questioning by Foodwatch, a non-government group, did the BDI drastically revise down the estimates.

Most observers agree that the strength of the debate in Germany is due to the fact that the German economy is faring so well at the moment.

Jobs are being created, revenues are rising, and so Germans have more time to get involved in debates which many of their neighbours have little time for, said Boerzel.

The French, for example, "have a very different problems at the moment," she said.

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