TTIP – where is the civil opposition?

The negotiations about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the USA and the European Union are floating like a shadow through media and political debates. Characteristically for a shadow is a blurred shape, which changes its location depending on the light source and it cannot be completely grasped. This metaphor is reflecting exactly the TTIP discussions – nobody knows what the agreement might actually bring or to which extent it will have an impact on the lives of Europeans and US-Americans, but the possible outcome appears to be dark and threatening. Thus, the information that has been leaked so far concerned many people – rumours about genetically modified food, disinfection of poultry with chlorine, the possibility for companies to sue the state or the leverage of employees’ rights trigger insecurity and discontent due to the lacking transparency of the negotiation process.

Only in 2012 thousands of European citizens protested in almost all member states in order to pressure their governments to vote against the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) in the European Parliament – they succeeded. ACTA, which would have criminalized many internet users and webhosts due to violations of the use of strictly defined intellectual property was withdrawn in the EU. Then why are there no similar protests when it seems that we might have to deal with severe changes as consumers and employees?

Few engaged actors, no leaders

Actually, there is something happening – people do protest, they sign petitions and attempt to mobilize the public, but this has hardly been reflected in mass media so far. The reason is that is difficult to report about a movement that is highly decentralized and has no clear demands, since demands cannot be formulated without knowing the real content of the TTIP. This is crucial, because the lack of information leads to confusion. Do the protestors reject a free-trade zone in general or only a few conditions of the agreement? What about the promised benefits like the creation of new jobs, growth and better economic competitiveness? Some might even ask what a free-trade zone actually is – a completely legit question considering the poor economic education in most European countries. In contrast, the criminalization of internet users because of ACTA was much easier to understand. As long as these uncertainties exist, the formation of a civil opposition will be hampered.

Furthermore, there are too few public actors that deal with the cause. The globalization critics of ATTAC reject the TTIP, but there aren’t many people left who would still like to tango with such organization after many countries have benefited before the crisis of global trade and easier human mobility. Additionally, the European Citizens‘ Initative became increasingly engaged and organized protest events, nevertheless they have difficulties to find public channels. In order to create and stabilize a real movement, leadership is required to connect and channel all the ideas, actions and to speak up as the voice of all the people who oppose the TTIP. Of course, for such organizational structures financial support is necessary, which could not be raised yet. On a supranational level, it is hardly possible to institutionalize movement patterns and even on a national scale very few measure have been taken in order to intensify the pressure.

Economics became a question of belief

What the economic crisis has evidently shown, is, that economics is not necessary about logic, but rather about a particular way of thinking that has been adopted by economists. While it seems that the current mainstream of neoliberal policies is still fashionable, alternative ideas and solutions do exist, but are hardly recognized in academia or by decisive policymakers. The way economists see the world can differ severely although they analyse the same case. This behaviour applies as well to the public sphere.

The pluralism of ideas and solutions is a valuable and an important aspect of intellectual freedom, but in the context of the formation of civil demands, it prolongs the process of finding what is actually desired – time that won’t be given much longer. While deep systematic questions like the extent of interference of the state into economic dynamics, total amount and national share of spending in the public sector and the welfare system or the conflict of austerity versus investment leads to heated debates between political parties, protestors have to clarify their positions as well. This is probably one of the most difficult tasks of grass-root formations, especially after the economy has become such a sensitive topic. Knowing that there is no ground-breaking solution for the economic challenges which the EU is still facing, it rather depends on how protestors see the world and the citizens in order to construct their own logic.

Apart from the protestors, the rest of the population which is not actively engaged into the debate, is important as well. First of all, there surely are many people who have witnessed the achievement of prosperity in the past decades and link it to neoliberal political economy, meaning they would be in favour of an extended free-trade zone. Secondly, and most crucial, many people aren’t interested at all because they don’t have a clue about what is going on. Three reasons can be identified that might have caused this knowledge gap: First, the poor marketing management of the European institutions, which claim that the lack of transparency is necessary in order to prevent the own negotiation strategy, perpetuating the citizens’ knowledge gap. Second, the poor media investigation does not inform the citizens – TTIP is not a hot topic in mass media, emotional content is simply being sold better. Unfortunately, this aspect has become more important in the last years, since quality media is struggling for survival. The tragic developments in the Middle Eastern fights against ISIS and the spread of Ebola reinforced the lack of economic public debates. Third, there are hardly any citizens’ initiatives on a local level to improve economic education or explain key arguments better.

The result? The lobbyists win

Without the expression of any demands or the creation of civil pressure, it is clear that politicians will be biased during the negotiations. Regarding the TTIP, companies have a strong interest to make production and trade patterns more efficient and of course politicians would rather listen to an expert from a lobby group after countless meetings than a notification about a petition, although the European Citizens’ Initiative against TTIP collected already more than 750.000 signatures.

Civil opposition has been successful in the past, but it will take more than a few angry Facebook groups in order to at least express doubts about a decision that could have a deep impact.

Photo: Protestors against TTIP in Germany; Source: flickr.com; user: Campact