As thousands marched in Berlin against the dreaded TTIP deal, maybe we should pause and reflect whether all this indignation is necessary

 

Europe has seen its fair share of protests this year, ranging from that of anti-austerity to those displaying anti-migrant/asylum seeker sentiment.  Germany has seen recently an upsurge in attendance of Pegida demonstrations in Dresden and its offshoot Legida in Leipzig, against Islam in German society—a return to popularity caused by immigration to the European Union on an unprecedented scale.  It’s fair to say that a German Nadiya Hussain would not get the vote in Das Grosse Backen (Germany’s version of The Great British Bake-off).

These issues have high resonance with electorates around the European Union.  Which makes it all the more impressive that protest groups can mobilise hundreds of thousands to descend on Berlin, as they did on Saturday the 10th of October to protest the esoteric provisions of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership or TTIP, in one of the largest acts of this kind since the Iraq invasion of 2003.

TTIP is a trade deal being negotiated between Washington D.C. and Brussels to create one of the largest free trade areas in the world and should be implemented, if current timetables on the haggling are met, next year.  This comes hard on the heels of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which united the USA with other Pacific Rim nations in a free-trade zone and which has already drawn the ire of Democratic presidential hopefuls like Hillary Clinton.  A free-trade zone between Canada and the EU (known as Ceta) is concurrently under discussion too.

There are forceful advocates and critics of TTIP; the former saying it will increase the economic growth of European nations and boost job creation (businesses hope the trade deal will deliver over $100 billion of economic gains on both sides of the Atlantic), the latter claiming it will do exactly the opposite, plus undermine the sovereignty of national parliaments, exposing them to be sued by multi-national corporations when policies impact their profits (e.g., private health companies suing the NHS for being ‘unfairly’ state-subsidised).  The biggest issue for detractors of TTIP is that it is being conducted largely in private (allowing conspiracy theories to proliferate).  TTIP will also harmonise regulations between the USA and the EU, which in the wake of the Volkswagen emissions cheating may not be quite so welcome (the ‘defeat device’ was discovered almost by accident).

Organisers say a quarter of a million people marched in Berlin but even if the lower police-sanctioned estimate of 100,000 is accepted, it is just the tip of the iceberg, with an online petition drawing more than 3 million people signing up (half a million from the UK alone).  Asked to turn out by political parties, trade unions, anti-globalisation and environmental groups, the protesters gathered at the German capital’s main train station, Berlin Hauptbahnhof, engaging in a march that took in the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag.

While many demonstrators fear a dystopia when corporations have ever more control over our lives (than they do already), in a full-page letter published in several German newspapers on Saturday, Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel warned against ‘scaremongering’.  ‘We have the chance to set new and goods standards for growing global trade. With ambitious, standards for the environment and consumers and with fair conditions for investment and workers. This must be our aim’, Mr Gabriel wrote.

There were similar concerns when the North American Free Trade Association (NAFTA) was signed by Bill Clinton in 1994, creating a zone encapsulating Mexico, Canada and the USA.  Unions in the USA claim it has undermined blue-collar wages and led to lay-offs as companies relocate south of the Rio Grande.

A TTIP between the developed EU and the developed America should not prove as damaging in this regard.  The degree of anti-Americanism present in the crowds should also be noted in explaining their opposition to something as dry as TTIP (not to say dull things are not important, on occasion).  When the European Community became the European Union with a common market in 1995 and the ‘Big Bang’ expansion east in 2004, few demurred.

Perhaps another motivation is also the shattering of faith in politicians and financial institutions following the Great Recession in 2008-09 and the subsequent anti-democratic ideology of austerity.  Trust in politicians was always low but their competence and integrity are now also under extra scrutiny and many are not prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt—and not just the usual suspects of the anti-globalisation movement and the far-left.  The democratic deficit of bureaucrats from Brussels negotiating on behalf of (mostly) willing governments is also a legitimate concern.

Ultimately though, TTIP seems a juggernaut that can only judder to a halt if talks between the parties irretrievably break down.  But what marches like the one through Berlin can underscore is the level of anger at such things being done in the people’s name and it will give elected politicians pause for thought,  and maybe even a push for additional safeguards to be in place for ordinary people and state sovereignty.  That the likes of Angela Merkel are rattled is illustrated by Gabriel’s high-profile letter.