Germany and the free trade agreement TTIP: Why a chicken soon won’t help Angela Merkel anymore

Posted on 02. July 2014

by Christoph Janosch Delcker

christoph-janosch-delckerThe planned free-trade agreement TTIP has come under harsh criticism in Germany. Why? The story involves opaque trade tribunals, back room negotiations – and a chicken.

Angela Merkel left little doubt that she will continue to support TTIP. In late May of 2014, the German chancellor entered the stage in front of the influential lobby organization American Chambers of Commercein Düsselsdorf. She delivered a dedicated plea for the planned free-trade agreement culminating in the words: “It is a great project, and it’s worth fighting for”.

The majority of the German electorate seems to think differently. TheTransatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership has sparked a heated debate in Germany. In the official words of the European Commission, the agreement “aims at removing trade barriers (…) to make it easier to buy and sell goods and services between the EU and the US.“ German media, however, refers to it as “an act of lunacy” (centrist weekly Zeit) or an “attack on democracy” (left-wing newspaper Die Tageszeitung).

Devastating effects on culture, labor rights and education

Opposing TTIP has become en-vogue in Germany: the managers of Germany’s major theatres have issued a statement claiming that TTIP would cause devastating cuts in the German cultural landscape. Germany’s metalworkers’ unions have expressed concerns that TTIP will weaken labor rights and social standards. The teachers’ union VBE fears risks for the education system. It’s hard to say how much of these claims are justified.

“The Corporate Invasion”

To me, the role that private trade tribunals could play seems most concerning. Probably, TTIP (in its status quo) would grant corporations the right to basically sue nations for compensation if certain government measures allegedly harm the corporations’ investments. These lawsuits would take place before private tribunals. At the end of 2013, Lori M. Wallach, founder of advocacy think tank Global Trade Watch, called TTIP “the corporate invasion”. She expressed her fear that TTIP could undermine the sovereignty of the national parliament in favor of big corporations – which would, indeed, be a major problem.

And yet, the leitmotif of Angela Merkel’s speech is a chicken – a chlorine-washed chicken. The German language, famous for its ability to create extra-long-compound-words, calls it a “Chorhühnchen.” For months and years, this chicken was the epitome of TTIP in Germany: The EU’s rigorous nutrition standards are still incongruous with some American food and product safety policies – such as the practice of treating carcasses of chicken with a chlorine wash to kill off food poisoning. This might change if TTIP is installed.

An overblown debate and a matter of life and death for Merkel

The debate about the German “Chlorhühnchen” is overblown, which even the strongest consumer advocates attest. My colleague Henrik Böhme at Deutsche Welle dedicated the hype a poignant gloss. To Merkel, however, the chicken still seems to be a matter of life and death: “There will be no import of chlorine-washed chicken from the United States. I have prevented it for years and will continue to do so. There is no question about that,” she stressed in her speech.

However, there are more important things to be concerned about. Left-wing US-French social scientist Susan George has accused TTIP of putting “democracy in danger”.   She refers to the involvement of lobby groups in the development of TTIP: “Transnational corporations headquartered on both sides of the Atlantic have since the mid-1990s been deciding all the nuts-and-bolts issues in elaborate detail, sector by sector.“

For years, the public has been shut out of the discussions

I believe the crucial problem is not the involvement of industry representatives and lobbyists per se; the problem is the lack of transparency. While for years, the United States and the European Union have been busy making headway on the agreement, the public has been mostly shut out of the discussions. Most recently, the EU has started some sort of transparency initiative; negotiations, however, are still taking place in half-opaque backrooms. Now that journalists are picking up on this topic, this notion is – slowly but steadily – infiltrating the debate in Germany.

So why did Angela Merkel still speak about the chicken? She has proven numerous times that in her public addresses, she likes to keep things simple. And she likes to embrace popular topics, no matter how populist they are – which has helped her being re-elected twice.

However, her electorate has understood by now that TTIP is actually only peripherally about chicken. This will intensify the pressure on Europe’s most powerful politician. For there are crucial and important aspects about TTIP that are more complicated and multi-faceted than a simple Yes-or-No question regarding a chlorine-washed chicken.

I believe that there are good reasons to be critical of TTIP. At the same time, however, there seems little doubt that TTIP – in a form that is yet to be specified – is crucial for both the EU and the US to remain a competitive player in an ever-changing world economy. In a not-too-distant future, the German public will demand of Merkel to explain this to them – and to raise her voice for more transparency in TTIP negotiations. Then, the chicken won’t help her anymore.