Germans and Austrians Protest E.U. Trade Talks With U.S. and Canada

 

BERLIN — Hundreds of thousands of people rallied across Germany and Austria on Saturday to urge their governments not to sign new agreements being negotiated for European Union trade deals with the United States and Canada.

The proposed deals have been bitterly contested since the European Union and Washington agreed in 2013 to try to form a new free-trade area with a market of more than 800 million people.

Beyond eliminating the remaining trade barriers and tariffs, one declared aim is ensuring that American and European consumer regulations — rather than the perceived lower standards in rising markets like China and India — become the standards worldwide.

Although Germany’s economy is heavily dependent on exports, opposition to the proposed pacts with the United States and Canada has swelled from the start, uniting a coalition of churches, trade unions, intellectuals and left-wing parties. That coalition called for Saturday’s protests in seven German cities.

The opposition effort poses problems in particular for Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s vice chancellor and the leader of the German Social Democrats. He is battling to keep his party well above the 20 percent mark in opinion polls ahead of national elections in the fall of 2017.

In what appeared to be a tactical move, Mr. Gabriel hurriedly visited Canada this past week and agreed with the Canadians that their pact could still be amended once passed by European Union trade ministers next Friday and then ratified by national parliaments.

But Mr. Gabriel also recently said the talks with the Americans over the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or T.T.I.P., had virtually failed. The Socialist government in France, facing elections in the spring, swiftly followed suit, calling for an end to the negotiations.

By contrast, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, said through her spokesman that the negotiations must continue.

A 15th round of talks is scheduled for October in the United States, and President Obama has continued to insist that a deal can be reached this year. Neither candidate to succeed Mr. Obama — Hillary Clinton or Donald J. Trump — has expressed support for the proposed trade pact.

Aware of the ticking clock, activists in Germany and Austria called Saturday’s demonstrations to push their case that both trade pacts are unfair and would force Europeans to accept what they see as lower American consumer standards.

The attacks on American practices have been so vigorous that proponents of a trade deal have often accused protesters of anti-Americanism, which they strongly deny.

Europeans have focused on genetically manipulated food produced in the United States and a desire to preserve the guaranteed quality of goods like Italian Parmesan, French Champagne and Black Forest ham by insisting that only products from those European regions can carry such labels.

Perhaps an even bigger point of contention is that the United States wants firm protections for investments by American companies in Europe, in case a member state fails to uphold the terms of the pact. Opponents of the pacts argue that such clauses could undermine the laws of European states by, in effect, providing legal protection for private companies even if they violate existing agreements on labor practices, for instance.

Organizers estimated that 320,000 people turned out in the German cities on Saturday, with at least 50,000 others expected in five cities across Austria. The Austrian lobby opposing a trade deal wants to hold a referendum on the issue and plans to collect the required 100,000 signatures in one week in January to force a popular vote barring the government from signing either deal or an earlier one regulating trans-Atlantic services.

German businesses have mounted a vigorous campaign favoring the trade pacts, particularly T.T.I.P. A typical recent brochure from the Atlantik-Brücke, one of the oldest trans-Atlantic groups here, described “extraordinary opportunities,” and said T.T.I.P could increase trans-Atlantic trade by 100 billion euros, or more than $110 billion, within 10 years for the European Union alone.

On Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, the center of the protests in the capital on Saturday, protesters sounded unconvinced.

Asked why she was there holding an anti-T.T.I.P. banner, Marina Dudek, a 52-year-old teacher, was clear: “I don’t like the way this is being negotiated. This is not being done in a transparent way — and if that is the case, it makes me suspicious.”

Ulrike Dettmann, 42, an urban planner, brought her 9-year-old son, Luka, to the protest. He was the one waving their banner, and he was the first to answer when asked why they were there.

“I don’t want to eat genetically manipulated food,” the boy said, citing an image that has become a favorite for the protesters — American chickens washed in chlorine. “Plants should grow as they always have, from ancient times.”

His mother said they had decided together to attend. “We both said that if everybody thought, ‘Oh, we’re just two people, we can’t make difference,’ then no one would go,” she said. “And so we came.”

Publicités