The window for TTIP is right now

Next week, negotiators from both sides of the Atlantic will meet in Brussels for the 12th round of TTIP negotiations. In the three years since negotiations began, substantial progress has been made on market access for EU and US companies in tariffs, services and public procurement. However, differences still remain between the two sides at the table, especially regarding geographical indications, investment protection mechanisms, financial services, and the inclusion of provisions on energy and raw materials in TTIP. If they aren’t able to bridge those differences during the first half of 2016, the window for TTIP to ever be concluded may close due to the upcoming election seasons both in the United States and Europe.

In the United States, an uncharacteristically unpredictable election cycle means there is no guarantee that the next administration will make TTIP a priority – let alone support it. In Germany, growing criticism of her migration policy currently threatens the chances for Chancellor Merkel’s fourth candidacy. The migration crisis seems to have already depleted her political capital in her party and among the public to push through unpopular measures in other areas, which could become a real problem for TTIP. 

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In France, the outspoken TTIP critique Marine le Pen might become a real challenge for the reelection of President Hollande as the pressure is currently on him to turn around the French economy. TTIP allows Marine Le Pen use the French’s divided opinion to mobilize the considerable potential of Anti-Americanism in France.

And what about the Brits? Recent polls on the British referendum (schedule for summer 2016) indicate that the two camps are very close. While indecisive about their membership in the European Union, the majority (65 percent) of the United Kingdom is in favor of TTIP, contrary to their German and French counterparts. “Brexiting” the European Union would mean that the UK has to re-negotiate export tariffs and red tape with a partner that they have just broken up with.  The alternative, to re-focus their attention to their top exporting partner and traditional ally, the United States, has been shut down by US officials who ruled out the possibility of a separate free trade deal with the United Kingdom. 

TTIP could play an important if perhaps low profile role in the looming “Brexit” debate; considerable progress in the negotiations until the referendum would make it much harder for the United Kingdom to leave the Union, unless they would be willing to face disastrous consequences to their economy as well as to their strategic relationship with both the European Union and the United States.

Furthermore, a final TTIP agreement will have to be ratified by the House and Senate in the United States, and by the European Parliament as well as all national parliaments on the European side. This creates uncertainty not only in terms of the election cycle, but also as a result of TTIP’s unpopularity among the electorates in the some of the negotiating countries.

As two of the biggest and the founding member states of the European Union, public opinion in France and Germany are leading the debate in Europe, and increasingly there is a disparity between the government’s opinion and the public opinion in both countries, with the government being mostly in favor and a majority of the public in doubt about TTIP. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been a steadfast proponent of TTIP, highlighting its importance for Germany as an export nation, while the German public is not impressed, with only 39 percent saying “JA” to TTIP. While President Hollande co-published an op-ed with President Obama on the economic benefits of TTIP for both sides of the Atlantic as well as for global economic growth, the public in the Grande Nation is divided, with 50 percent “OUI” to TTIP.

Though the brunt of the criticism in both countries is currently based on mis-information and myths surrounding the content and scope of a final agreement, few in the German and French political leadership will want high profile news on TTIP nor will they want to see TTIP become a major campaign issue in 2017 – out of fear of driving the electorate into the arms of opposition parties or populists like Marine Le Pen’s Front National or the “Alternative für Deutschland.” But without a clear messaging strategy, silence on the TTIP proponent front will just allow unfounded, alarmist messages on TTIP to spread at a t-tipping point. 

By and large, the election cycles of Europe and the United States leave us with two options: Governments either accelerate the pace of negotiations and rush to have a rough outline by December, or otherwise the future of TTIP will be uncertain. This would mean that they could negotiate in more detail and use the time to bring around the public; however, there is always the risk that new administrations won’t push TTIP with the same priority as their predecessors.

In any case, without widespread public support, it will be impossible for TTIP to successfully pass the legislative bodies on either side of the Atlantic. If we want an agreement that is supported by the electorate and administrations alike, we need to engage in a constructive communication strategy with the public to eradicate myths and fears and show them the true economic and strategic benefits of a fair and comprehensive TTIP.

Kasperek is assistant director of the Atlantic Council’s Global Business and Economics Program where she is the managing editor of the weekly newsletter “TTIP&TRADE in Action.”

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