While governments across Europe argue mostly in favor of the transatlantic trade and investment partnership between the US and the EU (TTIP), TTIP is continuously losing support in public opinion, as Eurobarometer data shows. If you are a newspaper reader or an attentive public citizen the following fact might surprise you: European anti-TTIP-protestors are not generally anti-trade. They are not generally against trade with the US, either. And certainly, there is also the wish among European citizens to strengthen the Atlantic link between the EU and the US, with both needing to cooperate to ensure the future of our transatlantic ties. But polls keep showing declining support for TTIP, so the question I ask myself is: How is TTIP special?
The EU already has free trade agreements with more than 50 other states. However, TTIP seems to be different: Following 15 rounds of negotiations TTIP is facing fierce opposition from tens of thousands of US and European citizens, NGOs, trade unions and civil society organizations. They are alarmed by the potential dangers of such a far reaching trade agreement and fear that TTIP will result in a race to the bottom and in the erosion of their social, trade union and environmental rights. Rather than trying to understand this complex set of regulations in TTIP, I would like to assess the question: How did civil society politicize TTIP so successfully? The question of how TTIP became a topic of public interest indicates that TTIP is seen by society as far more than an economic deal. My observations raise the premise that one cannot merely explain opposition by looking at the content of the negotiations as economic scholars have sought to do. It seems important to consider the specific historical context and the rhetorical underpinnings of the TTIP-discourse.
Comparing the discourse on TTIP with public interest in other global trade negotiations, TTIP has gained a remarkable amount of media and public attention. While this is only true for some of the EU member states, the European-wide politization of TTIP is still outstanding compared to the usually low public salience of international trade policies. TTIP is especially interesting to look at through the lens of Cultural Studies, asking: Which ideas and cultural understandings are in the minds and hearts of thousands of Europeans protesting against TTIP? Which arguments trump the general need for growth and prosperity in times of the ongoing euro-crisis, the wish to strengthen the relationship to the US after the recent NSA scandal, and a generally positive attitude in favor of free trade?
I state that politics, identity and culture, not macroeconomic data or models, determine the conflictual discourse on TTIP. In comparison to the rationalistic perspective of politicians on both sides of the Atlantic, anti-TTIP civil society interest groups were far more successful in gathering support on democratic and cultural questions. In their idealistic rhetoric, terms and concepts of responsibility, morality, balance, multiplicity, democracy, identity, and role models play a major role. The anti-TTIP argumentation is dominated by idealistic understandings of Europe as a multiplicity of cultures (exception culturelle), a community of values (understanding of “fair share” vs. American “othering”), a responsible global actor for sustainability (Paris World Climate Conference), a construct, and an example for socially and economically responsible politics – also in regard to third countries excluded from the treaty. On the moral level, TTIP opponents recall the lack of trust in US government due to the NSA scandal and fundamental moral differences (that become manifest in examples such as the death penalty, the US strategy in the Snowden affair and Guantanamo). The identity of Europe as a non-homogeneous, multi-national construct is activated to further elaborate the incapability of European and American standards and norms- and finally visions of their (political) future.
Looking at the pro-TTIP arguments, one can identify idealistic rhetoric here as well: proponents talk about the need to “set global standards” on the basis of “shared values” between the EU and the US, that refers to a specific understanding of global responsibility and certain understanding of being a role model for global politics. But in the pro-TTIP discourse, rationalist argumentation is dominant: The responsibility to generate wealth and growth in the nation states plays a significant role in the argumentation. In order to support their pro-TTIP attitudes, supporters refer to economic models that can show gains (seldom losses) of the treaty as well as to numbers of potential benefits per household. Also, the argumentation is more strategical: the EU’s declining importance in global politics, as well as the increasing power of China is one of the most important rationalist arguments that are put forward by the TTIP proponents. In the same manner, the relationship to the US is portrayed as first a traditional obligation due to a long shared history, and second as a relation that needs to be fixed through closer cooperation. In addition, the partnership is seen as a forceful economic unity that is able to compete with China, since it has 50% of global GDP. It is outstanding that the potentially significant economic gains from an ambitious TTIP remain contested, even if the predicted effects from trade diversion are mostly positive.
With this analysis, I aspire to contribute to a more comprehensive understanding of the politization of TTIP by the opponents, as well as the process of constructing it as a cultural issue. The anti-TTIP-protests show that global trade is no longer the exclusive domain of economic experts and practitioners in the field, but is politicized by a broader public. This (re)politicization of trade issues in the TTIP discourse mirrors a change in the nature of debating. Trade is not just about distributing goods, but increasingly a normative conflict, meaning a struggle about how and what parts of the culture are worth being protected, especially in the light of the increasing global interconnectedness. Understanding this broader ‘cultural shift’ requires moving beyond conventional, rationalist accounts of trade policy which focus on the mediation of interests. Rather, a look at culture-based accounts is required. In a narrow sense of the word, ‘culture’ is what we see in the TV, what we hear in radio, what we eat, what we buy – all of those goods are surrounding us and build a collectively shared way of life. That’s why trading, in the sense of exchanging goods, is and has always been strongly connected to culture. In a broader sense of the word, which I would like to apply here, ‘culture’ is a shared understanding about how to live together, connected to the normative question ‘What a good life is’. In that sense, the discourse on TTIP is as much about economic gains and geopolitical considerations, as about cultural self-understandings of Europe and the US.