BRUSSELS - The anti-free trade movement in Europe has gained momentum in the past year. It was able to mobilize hundreds of thousands of people in countries such as Germany, Austria and Belgium. This has turned free trade deals into very sensitive topics on both sides of the Atlantic and made ratification of an agreement unlikely any time soon.
The Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) agreement between the European Union and the United States has been in the discussion stage since 2013, and the 15th round of talks will start next week. Negotiations between the EU and Canada on the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) have been ongoing for the past seven years.
Politicians say trade deals are important to grow the economy, improve exports, and create jobs. Economic growth has been slow in recent years, especially in the Eurozone. But even those who are said to benefit according to policymakers, such as local business owners, are voicing their opposition to the trade deals.
Guido Körber is a German entrepreneur who runs a technology company in Berlin and often does business with U.S. companies. Not only is Körber against TTIP, he is on the advisory council of a German network of business owners opposing both the proposed TTIP and CETA agreements.
He says issues such as transatlantic public procurement, will not benefit businesses such as his own: “There are very few if any SME’s (small and medium size enterprises) that take part in tenders across the Atlantic. More likely they will be local subcontractors for larger public procurement projects, or direct contractors for local projects. This is threatened if the public procurement is opened internationally as this will draw in large corporations.”
Difference in standards, quality
The issue of standards and certification is another big obstacle for Körber.
“Technically standards for products are on eye level on both sides of the Atlantic. But the underlying standards, test procedures, and certification follow completely different rules.”
BEUC is the European consumer organization advising policymakers on what parts of the deals do not pass the consumer test. Director General Monique Goyens says the movement in public opinion is not only about the content of the deals:
“It’s more about the secrecy and the lack of transparency. That was also one of our major criticisms. We didn’t have access, we couldn’t contribute to constructive debate as long as we didn’t have access to the text. The EU Commission has released its proposal. We are now facing the problem that the U.S. does not want to release its proposal. This means we can’t really do our advisory role.”
Fears over genetically modified food, environmental protection or lower quality standards for consumer products got hundreds of thousands of citizens in Germany, Austria and Belgium demonstrating against the ongoing negotiations in recent weeks.
Alain Dabi hasn’t participated in a protest since he was a student. He says he had to come out during the Brussels protests in September because the issues are so important this time:
“It’s about the future for me and my children. I am concerned about the quality of food and the quality of life. We don’t want things with less quality.”
France suggested suspending the TTIP negotiations, while Germany’s economy minister stated the TTIP talks had ‘de facto failed’. With elections and referenda coming up in many EU countries, anti-trade deal sentiments are likely to intensify in Europe.
European Member of Parliament Marietje Schaake is the spokesperson on TTIP for ALDE, an alliance of liberal and democratic parties in the EU parliament. Schaake says more engagement is needed from EU member states: “Those ministers now criticizing the TTIP negotiations for internal political reasons must remember that they were the ones who asked the Commission to start negotiations in the first place.”
U.S. President Barack Obama hopes to finalize the TTIP agreement before leaving office, but both major U.S. presidential candidates have voiced their reservations about the deal. European leaders have admitted the unlikeliness of finalizing the pact before January.
Approval of the CETA deal needs the consent of the European Parliament and needs ratification of the national parliaments of all EU member states. A summit between Canada and the EU to sign off on CETA is scheduled for late October.
EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström feels that not ratifying the CETA deal with Canada undermines Europe’s credibility, stating earlier this month "if we can't do it with Canada, well then, with whom can we make agreements?"