Europe in the World


The resistible rise of TTIP

29 Apr 2016 - 20:30

As Arnold Toynbee famously lamented, “History is one damned thing after another.” The history of the EU-US Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) seems to bear out Toynbee’s wisdom, since what started off in 2013 as a blue-eyed project to rekindle a moribund transatlantic relationship with a joint project aimed at “jobs and growth” is now widely considered to be “by far the most controversial agreement the EU has ever negotiated.”

During his recent visit to Europe, US president Obama stated the obvious by arguing that “time is not on our side” and “if we don’t make progress this year, then upcoming political transitions in the United States and Europe will result in the TTIP agreement not being finished for quite some time.” President Obama also suggested that the UK would be “at the back of the queue” for a new trade deal with the US, if it were to vote for a Brexit this June. To further complicate matters, the Dutch electorate voted down the EU’s trade deal with Ukraine (in a referendum), inspiring numerous critical NGOs to block any future TTIP deal by similar means.

Why has TTIP turned into such a controversial project, ruffling feathers left and right? And why the hurry to rush things through so quickly? TTIP’s critics are found at what used to be the trivial fringes of the political spectrum: anti-globalist Leftists and Greens, rambling on against the supposed capitalist ploys of multinationals, as well as anti-EU nationalists fearing further infringements of their sovereignty. The problem today is that these fringes have swelled into significant political factions, putting pressure on moderate centrist parties to reconsider their support for TTIP. In all EU member states, social-democratic parties are lukewarm advocates of TTIP (at best) whose future support can no longer be taken for granted.

The EU’s overall bleak track-record over the past decade makes it hard to sell TTIP to an increasingly sceptical and anti-establishment populace. Ranging from a troubled euro project to the failure to manage Europe’s refugee and immigration crisis, policy-makers in Brussels have lost credibility with the general European public. Merely “explaining” to Europe’s citizenry “Why TTIP is Good For You”, is now seen as yet another paternalistic, undemocratic confidence trick that no longer works. Public support for TTIP in all EU member states (bar Belgium) has fallen, and 32 per cent of EU citizens are now against the proposed trade deal (up from 28 per cent in May 2015). Over the last nine months, support for TTIP dropped most dramatically in the Netherlands, and Central and Eastern Europe; Austria and Germany remain most critical, with 70 and 59 percent (respectively) of respondents “against” TTIP. With important elections ahead in Germany and France in 2017, both Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande are keen to get TTIP out of the way this year. The prospect of Obama being succeeded by a mercantilist Republican president Trump further explains why it may be now or never for TTIP.

But the stakes are by far the highest for the EU itself. Negotiating favourable external trade deals is supposed to be one of the EU’s strong points. So if a TTIP deal were to fall through, if Brexit were to complicate negotiations, if key member states were to hold back support for electoral reasons, or - the ultimate nightmare - if TTIP were to be vetoed in a referendum in one of the member states, the EU’s reputation would be seriously damaged. Already today, the EU’s claim to be a force-multiplier for its member states is wearing dangerously thin. Whereas Switzerland has signed a free-trade agreement with China, the EU remains hesitant and bogged down by internal quarrels. Was the UK to sign favourable trade deals with China and India after it leaves “Europe”, the EU would lose whatever credibility it still has left in the international trade arena. Given these scenarios, the EU has much to lose if TTIP goes south. Simply proclaiming “Wir schaffen das!” will not do this time round.