Miguelángel Verde Garrido | 28th October 2015
On Saturday, 10th October 2015, over 150000 people met in the streets of Berlin to continue to voice their concerns about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a free trade agreement (FTA) being negotiated between the US and the EU. The protest, largest in the country since its Iraq War demonstration in 2003, came a year after the first worldwide protests against the TTIP and the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement (CETA), a similar FTA already negotiated between the EU and Canada. Tens of thousands of people came from different cities and towns across Germany, mostly in trains and in over 600 buses chartered for the occasion.
European civil society showed their discontent not only in Berlin, but also in European capitals like Amsterdam and London, with the way in which the negotiations have become synonymous with secrecy and with transatlantic citizens and consumer’s exclusion. Germany’s economy minister, Sigmar Gabriel, published an open letter in German newspapers that same Saturday, where he confusedly stated that civil society should not monger fears about the TTIP at the same time that he recognized that organizations, unions, and citizens had brought the TTIP to the attention of the general public as well as policy-makers in the last year.
The importance of civil society’s participation cannot be underestimated, especially when we consider answer that the European trade commissioner, Cecilia Malmström, gave John Hilary, executive director of the non-governmental organization (NGO) War on Want, when he asked her why the negotiations continue in the way they do without consideration for the opposition of civil society. The trade commissioner simply replied: “I do not take my mandate from the European people”.
That misleading answer does not resonate with the fact that, only some days after the protest, the trade commissioner published an official document that proposes “a more responsible trade and investment policy”. Renewed were the promises that, earlier in January 2015, vowed that the European Commission would be committed to “greater transparency” and would make more “key negotiating texts” public in reference to the TTIP. Despite the promises for more transparency, the European Union merely refers to a number of actions that would start in 2016 (pp. 18-19). An important fact to consider is that the redirection of the EU’s standpoint on the transparency on the TTIP is not only because of the rising opposition and dwindling support among civil society for negotiations (p. 32), but also a result of the criticisms that even business lobbies, such as Business Europe – which represents companies and federations from 34 European countries – have offered about the way in which the EU has attempted to reform, in the vaguest terms, the controversial topic of investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanisms and its impact on small- and medium-sized companies (SMEs) that trade internationally.
In this sense, it is both welcomed and disappointing to read that – after two years of negotiations – the largest protest in Germany in over a decade is what has led the European Union to reassert that its trade policy “must be consistent with the principles of the European model […] in short, be responsible [,] […] transparent and open to public scrutiny” (p. 7). The EU glosses over the fact, however, that other FTAs it is negotiating, such as the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA) (pp. 10-11), were only made public last year when Wikileaks published leaked documents from the TiSA negotiations – which, to be clear, state that it should remain a secret for five years, no matter whether its negotiation was successful and the agreement ratified or unsuccessful and shelved until the next time that it was found desirable.
The document published by the trade commissioner provides further examples of significant omissions and contradictions. For example, the EU states that the TiSA and other FTAS will help “set rules for e-commerce and crossborder data flows […] with and without prejudice to the EU’s data protection and data privacy rules” (pp. 12). That is nothing short of a contradiction when we consider that one of Wikileaks most recent publications, the full (and leaked) intellectual property chapter Wikileaks recently published of the Transpacific Partnership (TPP), a FTA negotiated between the US and various other countries, is being described as “a grave threat to global freedom of expression and basic access to things like medicine and information”. Although the EU attempts to show its confidence in these FTAS, US presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have recently echoed some of the criticisms regarding the TPP that unions and privacy activists in that country have voiced for years.
Lastly, the trade commissioner’s document confusedly states its commitment to multilateral trade negotiations through the World Trade Organization (WTO) in the same chapter that it insists on its commitment to a myriad of bilateral trade negotiations. Among these are: the CETA, and proposed negotiations and agreements with Japan and China, with the African continent, with Latin America and the Caribbean, with Turkey, and even – despite existing sanctions – with Russia (pp. 27-34). In the end, what there can be no doubt about are the EU’s intentions on “a trade policy that remains ambitious in its effort to shape globalization” (p. 35).
This very last intention, that is to say, to direct contemporary globalization processes mostly by means of trade policy, could be considered a principal reason behind the fact that Germany’s largest protest in over a decade was against the TTIP. However, a similarly plausible reason could be – maybe, just maybe – that those more than 150000 people that gathered last Saturday in Berlin – in an immense display of plurality, civility, and sociopolitical concerns, unmarred by violence or conflict – are confident that there are other policies and practices that can better, more sustainably, and more ethically, shape and direct the global politics of the 21st century.