When negotiations for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership began the case for a free trade deal between the EU and the USA appeared to be clear cut. The proposed free trade agreement would have consolidated over 40% of Global GDP into a single trade block. Thereby, not only ensuring an additional economic growth of up to 200 billion Euros, but also helping to secure the predominance of western rules and regulations in international trade. Yet, in spite of these benefits the TTIP negotiations have generated an enormous public backlash all over Europe, with hundreds of thousands protesting against the proposed treaty. Previous international trade negotiations had failed to stir much passion among the wider population. However, with TTIP there were several factors that led to the creation of a perfect storm that completely blindsided EU and European governments alike.
Foremost among these reasons was the formation of a remarkably broad coalition of various interest groups ranging from labor unions to NGOs and environmentalists which were opposed to the treaty. This broad coalition in combination with the absence of a clear communication strategy of the treaty’s benefits enabled those opposed to the treaty to dominate the public discourse on transatlantic free trade. By playing on people’s fears of the by now infamous chlorinated chicken or the specter of genetically modified food in European supermarkets the critics of the treaty have succeeded in directing the debate away from an objective assessment of TTIP.
Consequently, when the European governments belatedly became aware of the enormous controversy that was sparked by TTIP, they were confronted with an uphill battle against an already well entrenched narrative. Thus, even though the EU initiated a transparency initiative to combat accusations of the negotiations being secretive and undemocratic, the damage to public confidence in the advantages of the treaty has proven itself to be exceedingly difficult to reverse. Therefore, before there can be a comprehensive trade deal between EU and USA, there must first be a comprehensive strategy to regain public support for transatlantic free trade. The emotional nature of the TTIP debate has made it clear, that the governments on both sides of the Atlantic need to convey a new message that is able to win hearts and not just minds. Yet, for all of the impact “emotional arguments” have had on the public debate it is crucial to examine why these arguments fell on such fertile ground in the first place. Particularly, because wide-spread protests against TTIP may have been limited to Europe, a growing uneasiness with free trade has become increasingly common throughout the western world.
Far too long, have leaders in both the EU as well as the USA taken public support for free trade as granted. After all, do not in the long run all participating countries benefit from free trade? Be it from an expansion of export markets or cheaper consumer prices and a wider variety of products. Yet, these benefits are spread out over the entire population, while the drawbacks of free trade such as the loss of uncompetitive jobs are often highly regionally concentrated. The promise that in the end free trade benefits all is only a cold comfort to those that have lost their livelihoods to it. Therefore, if EU and USA wish to conclude a comprehensive trade agreement and remain at the forefront of global free trade, any strategy to regain lost public trust must go far beyond better communication. Leaders on both sides of the Atlantic must address the legitimate concerns of those who have been negatively affected by free trade and maybe even more importantly the concerns of those who only fear to be left behind by ever increasing free trade and globalization.
Both the EU with the European Globalization Adjustment Fund and the USA with the Trade Adjustment Assistance have already devised programs to help workers adjust to major structural changes in world trade. These programs naturally face different structural problems, yet they are both constrained by a focus on trade related disruptions. However, in today’s globalized economy rather than being faced with an one-time adjustment, companies and workers are confronted with the need for continuous adjustment in order to cope with new competitors and technologies. Thus, as laudable as the efforts of these programs have been, they would have to be significantly expanded in both scope and scale to effectively assist workers with the manifold adjustment challenges of today’s economy.
Nevertheless, addressing the legitimate concerns of those negatively affected by globalization, will only be the first step towards regaining public support for free trade. Governments in both the EU as well as the USA must find a way to confront the widespread narrative of free trade solely benefiting large multi-national companies. However, confronting this narrative with a positive message of free trade as force for good does not only require a better communication strategy, but also a different approach towards trade negotiations. For example, the public must not merely be shown that their high environmental and labor standards will be preserved, but also that a transatlantic free trade agreement would go a long way towards cementing them as the gold standard of future international trade agreements.
Winning back the support of those that feel left behind by a globalizing world will be extremely difficult, but giving up on a comprehensive free trade agreement between the United States and the EU would be nothing short of disaster. Neither EU nor the United States can afford an extended period of economic isolationism. Further, attempting to close of economies to international trade cannot hope to reverse the trends that have created an increasingly interconnected world. All this will accomplish is to ensure that it will be others that determine the future international standards of trade and profit from preferential trade and investment conditions.