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Why Berliners mobilized against a US-EU trade deal

Germans are weary of even freer trade. Their European and American counterparts should be too

October 17, 2015 2:00AM ET

“Possibly the worst trade agreement you’ve never heard of.” That’s how Twitter’s foremost nihilist philosopher, Eric Jaronski — aka Nein Quarterly — described the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which is being negotiated between the U.S and the European Union.

Nein was evidently addressing a U.S. audience, because Germans need no introduction to the TTIP. Opposition to the free trade deal was strong enough to draw an estimated 250,000 protesters into the streets of Berlin on Oct. 10. Meanwhile, Germany’s economy minister, Sigmar Gabriel, published a full-page letter in several major newspapers on the day of the protest to urge against “scaremongering.”

Lately, public attention in the U.S. has been more focused on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal between the U.S. and 11 other Pacific Rim countries. It has received considerable American media attention and opposition from labor advocates, environmentalists, digital privacy groups and most Democrats (including an eleventh-hour U-turn of dissent from Hillary Clinton). Their objections are justified: The treaty is a gift to big corporations and a blow to many environmental and worker protections. The same goes for the TTIP; in fact, that deal was drawn up with the same intent: to open up markets, purportedly promote jobs and growth and integrate U.S. and EU markets.

Fears in Europe about the TTIP mirror Americans’ anxieties about the TPP. Both deals promote market liberalization over consumer, worker and environmental protections. And negotiations for both were conducted largely in secret. While there have been protests in London, the U.S. and in a number of other Pacific Rim nations, the TPP has not incited the quarter-million-strong march seen in Berlin. The idea that tens of thousands of people would take to the streets against economic globalization seemed consigned to a bygone protest era at the close of the last century — think Seattle’s mobilizations against the World Trade Organization in 1999. As political reporter Felix Werdermann wrote in Der Freitag, a German weekly, “Two years ago, no one would have believed that we would see a large citizens’ movement against the TTIP.” Berlin hasn’t hosted a demonstration this big since Germany’s largest day of anti–Iraq War protests in 2003.

Why Berlin? Freer trade is a more frightening prospect for Europeans than Americans. Regulations on this side of the Atlantic are already more lax, unions have been long defanged, and welfare services are already sparse. The TTIP aims to open Europe’s public health, education and water services to U.S. businesses to encourage competition and transnational trade. Opponents warn that the deal could open up public services, such as Britain’s National Health Service (NHS), to irreversible privatization; unless protections are explicitly put in place, the TTIP would allow multinational health care corporations to sue national governments if government policies (such as the crucial preservation of public health services) mean the companies lose money when doing business with that country.

Nebulous assurances that jobs, public services and regulations will be protected have been met with understandable skepticism from environmentalists, unions and politicians from the Green and Linke parties, among others. With outstanding fears that the deal may threaten national sovereignty over public services like the NHS, it makes sense that European citizens are pushing back against the deal as it approaches its final negotiation stages.

The ghost of Seattle ’99 did not rise in Brandenburg last Saturday.

That there is greater, vociferous opposition to the TTIP in Germany compared with elsewhere makes sense for other reasons. As Europe’s largest economy and most populous country, Germany stands to be affected the most by the TTIP. German trade unionism has declined in recent decades but remains a leviathan compared with the defanged state of British or certainly American unionism. German citizens are keenly aware of their government’s penchant for treating the ongoing eurozone crisis with technocratic measures and a troubling faith in markets, which has had devastating effects, especially in Greece. The international free trade deal jibes with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s euro crisis response in this regard — prioritizing the prosperity of the German economy at the expense of state welfare provisions in the rest of Europe. The TTIP deal with the U.S., however, has many Germans nervous that the national economy is not being put first.

The German government has been resolute in pushing forward with the deal, despite public dissent. France, meanwhile, has pushed back on aspects of the agreement, perhaps accounting for a relatively larger aperture for protest in Germany. Crucially, too, Berlin is, generally speaking, a hub for anti-capitalist organizing. As Stefan Schulz, a sociologist and journalist for German daily FAZ said, “Civil society’s engagement is very high in Germany.”

These conditions all might account for why there are more and larger protests against the trade deal there than elsewhere. But it takes more to account for 250,000 people in the street, and there is, of course, a German term for it: Vereinsmeierei.

Vereinsmeierei describes the interconnected bureaucracy of associations — layered Venn diagrams of rules and regulations connecting organizations, unions and advocates — that make topics deemed relevant to a small number of organizations enter the agenda of many. Thanks to this concept, topics deemed relevant to a small number of organizations thus enter the agenda of many. Last Saturday’s protest appears to be the fruit of a certain Vereinsmeierei, uniting left political parties, NGOs and unions. A broad coalition, from the DGB (the confederation of German trade unions) to Greenpeace to the German Cultural Council, mobilized around the demonstration. “Germany is known as the Land of Associations for a reason. Environmental organizations have up to 100 full-time employees. Unions are the biggest in the world,” Schulz said. 

There’s nothing mysterious in the fact that large, well-funded organizations can draw big crowds to peaceful, planned protests. The risks (and stakes) of attendance are low, and the appeal to sensibilities from center-liberal to left is broad. The People’s Climate March last autumn in New York followed a similar pattern. And just as that huge demonstration did not index a major turning point or uptick in climate activism but reflected a good amount of public concern, we are not seeing a rebirth in anti-globalization action in Berlin.

“More relevant than the anti-globalization activism is the anti-Americanism,” Schulz suggested. Merkel’s consistent acquiescence to the U.S., despite damning revelations of National Security Agency spying on the chancellor’s communications, has buoyed distrust of a trade deal that serves U.S. business interests above all. The ghost of Seattle ’99 did not rise in Brandenburg last Saturday.

Natasha Lennard is a New York–based writer covering civil liberties, dissent, non-electoral politics and international affairs. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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