I don’t know how sexy transatlantic relations are in general, if you ask young people across Europe. But certainly the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is mobilizing a lot of emotions among the younger generation. The topic resonates even in small villages where trade issues or EU-US-Relations would normally not get much attention. Most of the reactions towards TTIP that I have heard have clearly been raising very critical opinions. So is TTIP maybe becoming the one transatlantic issue that is best understood as an indicator of how far both sides of the Atlantic Ocean have moved apart?
Not so fast. The criticism that is spreading throughout ever-larger parts of the European public is not really of European origin alone. Take the strong opposition against investor protection policies like ISDS – Investor State Dispute Settlement – as an example. Many of the arguments that you will find being used originate with US consumer protection groups like Public Citizen’s Trade Watch. In a way Public Citizen’s Lori Wallach is the great teacher of many young European trade critics. And even in mobilizing against ISDS European campaigners are happy taking lessons from their US role models. In addition to that, young activists from consumer groups or environmental NGOs, from organic farming initiatives or from data privacy groups in the US and in Europe are actively coordinating their efforts against the TTIP agenda that negotiators have been pursuing since the middle of last year.
Undeniably there are some vague anti-American sentiments floating around which should not come as a surprise to anybody. But it would be utterly foolish to portray the opposition against TTIP as an outflow of anti-Americanism. It is rather two very fundamental issues that feed and motivate the criticism. On one hand TTIP is giving rise to a deep going debate about the quality of life that young people expect for themselves and are willing to fight for. For them technical discussions about norms and standards, about chlorine chicken and GMOs and hormone beef and REACH and so on boil down to the very emphatic question: how do I want to live? And secondly the controversy touches upon the sensitive question of democratic responsibility and democratic choice. Doesn’t the lack of transparency in the TTIP negotiation question democratic participation on an issue that might have an extremely broad impact on our daily lives? Wouldn’t ISDS undermine legitimate choices that parliaments are democratically elected to make? Wouldn’t the Regulatory Cooperation Council (RCC), which is being discussed, limit the scope of future legislation?
TTIP has adequately described as a trade and investment treaty “like none before”. If trade is to be a tool to improve our societies and not just an instrument to promote narrow corporate interests, then we should be happy about the kind of discussions we are seeing and not dodge them. Unfortunately, in the public eye TTIP has largely been hijacked by what I would call a corporate lobbyists’ wet dreams agenda. Business sectors, most notably the agro-industrial complex, want to use TTIP as an opportunity to finally achieve selfish goals that they have pursued for years without success. Is Europe possibly so much in need of some growth impulse from somewhere that it might be willing to give up on standards is has defended staunchly for so long? I am really happy and proud that young people stand up against such a challenge. Harmonizing standards across the Atlantic in order to promote low carbon technologies, like e-mobility for instance, or to avoid duplication in safety routines, where the level of consumer protection is in fact the same on both sides, that does make sense. And in all the discussions I have had, I have rarely met anyone questioning that. But, to mention just one highly controversial field of concerns, undermining European data protection standards through TTIP makes absolutely no sense, infringes on citizens’ liberties and freedom and deserves to be opposed full force.
Young people are sending a very clear message to European and US leaders: ignore our demands, disregard our democratic ambitions, forget our concerns about the way of life that we want to choose and we will fight your TTIP-agenda with all we have. I believe this fight is highly justified and if I look at the mobilization, I believe it can be successful as the fight against ACTA was.
The European Commission is already feeling the heat. The trade commissioner has postponed negotiations on ISDS and instead started a public consultation on the topic. By the way, in a petty demonstration of stubbornness he refused to include in the consultation the simple question, whether there should be any ISDS in TTIP at all. But nonetheless opposition against ISDS is rising and has recently gained support from three senior Social Democrats in the German government. As regards the agricultural dimension of TTIP even mainstream voices from the European agricultural sector are openly opposing the TTIP agenda. And if you listen to European negotiators these days they plead urgently for more political support of their agenda and at the same time concede that they find it extremely hard to muster any. To put it ironically: there are people in the US, including, it seems, judges on the Supreme Court, who believe that “corporations are people“, as Mitt Romney famously put it. But then again, if corporations are about the only people that support a course they may still fall short of their goals.
Maybe leaders should listen better to the younger generation. After all, they are the future.