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Independent.ie

Saturday 10 December 2016

Populism may tip deal over the edge

Published 20/07/2016 | 02:30

German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Photo: Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters
German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Photo: Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters

IRISH farmers will have heard about TTIP, the acronym for a major EU-US trade deal because of concerns about food exports.

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But few Irish people, beyond political activists and academics, will have heard of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership or TTIP for short. However, believe it or not, TTIP is the subject of popular conversation in Germany where a book attacking the project is a best seller.

"The Free Trade Lie," published in German, as Die Freihandelslüge, has sold 70,000 copies in the past 16 months. A rally against TTIP in Berlin last October, attracted more than 150,000 people, and was the country's largest political demonstration since the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel still publicly defends the principle of TTIP. But the German Socialists, in coalition with Ms Merkel, are vehemently opposed to it and last week they stated "TTIP is dead."

There is widespread hostility in France too where the farming lobby has always packed a political punch far in excess of its numbers. Last month the EU Commission president, Jean Claude Juncker of Luxembourg went to Paris to address a convention of small town mayors from the length and breath of France in efforts to sell the idea.

It has been openly conceded among Brussels diplomats for some time that the goal of concluding a TTIP deal before the departure of US President Barack Obama was "fanciful." Now those same diplomats are considering whether it will be possible to do a deal at all.

The French Government has always been sceptical and they face presidential and parliamentary elections early next summer. In the autumn there are federal elections in Germany and Chancellor Merkel will be bidding for a fourth consecutive win.

Watch her at very least put TTIP on the back burner. The well-read Brussels magazine, Politico, yesterday reported support for the process in Germany had fallen from 55pc in 2014 to just 17pc currently. Big trade unions in Germany, who supported what was billed as potentially the biggest trade deal in history, in hopes of job creation, are now totally opposed.

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Politico credits much of this sea change in German public opinion to a man called Thilo Bode. He is by all accounts an unlikely rabble rouser. He is a 69-year-old grandfather and he is the author of that best-selling book. Essentially, he put a face to a growing public unease at the implications of TTIP and defeated the EU elite in public debate. It will be hard to roll back this one.

Irish farmer representatives have long warned that not just TTIP, but an EU-Canada deal and a mooted deal with the South American states in Mercosur pose a real threat. All of bring the risk of extra imports into the EU of cheap and lower-standard beef, produced on large-scale operations.

The Irish Government broadly favours TTIP - but with no compromise on standards. They are looking to EU Agriculture Commissioner, Phil Hogan, who is carving something of a reputation for himself in Brussels to hold the line here. But Hogan may not have to mobilise.

EU and US negotiators made little progress in Brussels last week in the 14th round of TTIP bargaining. TTIP is stalled - perhaps fatally.

John Downing is an Irish Independent political correspondent

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