The chances of the free trade agreement between the US and Europe becoming a reality are dwindling. Was the urgent appeal launched in favour of the deal by outgoing President Obama during Germany’s Hannover Messe last April already the swan song for an agreement that Europe needs more urgently than the United States?
Economists from both shores of the Atlantic have the arguments to support their case that an unlimited exchange of goods between Europe and the United States could give Europe’s economies a long-lasting boost, hence also a competitive edge and greater stability. However, TTIP opponents on both sides of the Atlantic are rallying increasing numbers of supporters with their fear mongering and anti-progressive ideas. Isolationist thinking is gaining ground in the United States, while a new wave of anti-Americanism is sweeping through Europe, with names like Amazon, Google and Apple being brandished as symbols of Europe’s “dependence”. In neither the US nor Europe do the political calendars bode well for the agreement. The US will be electing a new President in 2016, while in 2017 there will be landmark parliamentary elections in Germany and presidential elections in France. The American election campaign, with both presumed candidates pandering to populist anti-TTIP sentiments, is already casting a long shadow, while right-wing movements and parties will be doing their bit to counter the agreement in Europe. Understandably, the European Commission and the Member States are seeing dark clouds on the horizon, as the hope of wrapping up the deal by the end of this year fades. In spite of everything they have achieved in the negotiations they seem to be fighting a losing battle with the opponents of the TTIP.
The EU may have made a mistake, however, in failing to publicly discuss in a timely fashion the TTIP opponents’ justified concerns about a shift of decision-making powers towards non-democratic institutions (to wit, arbitration tribunals). While the deal may not be a problem in itself, as stated by Mr Obama in Hanover, the “secrecy” in which the Commission
has shrouded the negotiations at the United States’ request gives TTIP opponents the fatal impression that the EU has no interest in codetermination and transparency. The proponents of TTIP have understood that this agreement takes the long-term view, above all in setting common standards for research and development on future-oriented projects. If Europe does not pull in the same direction, it will in future have to bow to standards set by the US and others. It may start lagging behind in many areas in which for the time being it is still competitive, a state of affairs that would be dangerously confirmed by a possible future free trade agreement between the US and ASEAN.
It is a pity that any objective discussion about the trade agreement has become impossible. Misunderstandings and prejudices about the other side’s interests – epitomised by such buzzwords as “chlorine-washed chicken” – hamper a constructive exchange about the future of European trade relations. However, a lot is at stake: the European nations have recognised that Europe will have no chance of grasping the opportunities of digitalisation if the agreement is buried.
Hartmut Bühl, Editor-in-chief