domingo, 17 de julho de 2016
The man who killed TTIP
The man who killed TTIP
Free trade is a political nonstarter in Europe. Thilo Bode is fighting to keep it that way.
By HANS VON DER BURCHARD 7/14/16, 11:00 AM CET
BERLIN — When the European Union and the United States announced they would seek to strike a free-trade pact three years ago, the path to a deal looked straightforward.
Today, that agreement, named the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership or TTIP, is politically dead. Protectionist winds are blowing stronger than in a long time on both sides of the Atlantic — the product, in part, of a coordinated campaign by a panoply of organizations skeptical of globalization. So while politicians in the U.S. and Europe voice their support for the deal, few are willing to brave the return fire over TTIP and other free-trade initiatives.
If there is one person most responsible for this reversal, it’s Thilo Bode. Gray-haired and grandfatherly, Bode directs a consumer advocacy organization called Foodwatch from an old factory complex in central Berlin that houses mostly startups. He is an unlikely insurgent, more given to lectures about the minutiae of the regulatory process than tub-thumping speeches on the evils of international capitalism.
Since Bode, who is 69, entered the fray in 2014, support for TTIP in Germany has plummeted from 55 down to 17 percent.
The mild-mannered former development worker gave a face and a voice to a broad-based movement that has wrong-footed German Chancellor Angela Merkel, left EU leaders with their mouths agape, and derailed what would have been the largest free-trade deal in history. He did so by stirring up and, on current evidence, winning an argument over TTIP that Europe’s political establishment only realized had started when it was virtually over.
Since Bode, who is 69, entered the fray in 2014, support for TTIP in Germany has plummeted from 55 down to 17 percent, putting pressure on the most powerful country in the EU to drop its support. Major German trade unions, which once supported an agreement, now oppose it.
Bode’s book “The Free Trade Lie,” (in German, Die Freihandelslüge) is a best-seller, having sold 70,000 copies in the past 16 months. An anti-TTIP rally in Berlin in October 2015, which Bode helped organize, drew more than 150,000 people, making it the country’s largest political demonstration since the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
TTIP — an acronym that resonates with few American voters but is part of the daily political conversation in Germany — is now a wedge issue ahead of federal elections next year. Merkel continues to defend the deal, but Sigmar Gabriel, the economy minister and leader of the center-left Social Democrat Party (SPD) whom she will most likely face off against, is now attacking it. In May, he described Merkel’s desire to conclude negotiations by the end of the year as “wrong.”
Last week, leading SPD politicians called the deal “dead,” and Gabriel elaborated on the possibility of aborting the talks. “My impression is that the negotiations aren’t moving forward, and if they fail to make progress, then there’s a point where we need to say this openly,” the minister said.
Negotiators gathered in Brussels last week for the 14th round of TTIP negotiations, but made only slow progress. Barring a radical change the chances for a concluded deal this year, if ever, are almost nonexistent. Thanks to Bode and his movement, the seemingly inevitable has become impossibly stalled. “Germany and the European Union concluded trade and investment deals for decades, without causing much public turmoil,” said Wigan Salazar, chief of MSL in Berlin, one of Germany’s leading public relations agencies. “All of a sudden, this has become very toxic.”
Bode entered the world of advocacy through the boardroom. The native Bavarian spent the first decades of his career working in Africa and China for the Reconstruction Credit Institute, a development bank owned by the German government. He was then employed for three years at a mid-sized metal processing firm, doing consulting and strategic management, before finding a job as director of Greenpeace’s German branch in 1989.
At first, Bode was less interested in activism than in bringing order to the group, which was struggling with financial and organizational issues. “Bode professionalized the organization’s structures and set the founding stone for today’s success,” said Heinrich Strößenreuther, a Berlin-based activist who worked with him at the time. “But he was also able to learn from Greenpeace: How to run a campaign, how to get a message out.”
By 1995, Bode was spearheading the organization’s most spectacular campaigns. In April of that year, together with other activists, he boarded Shell’s Brent Spar oil rig in protest against plans to drill in the North Sea. For Bode, it was a watershed moment. “That campaign went completely out of control,” he said.
“We created so much public attention that even the then-[German] Chancellor Helmut Kohl urged the British premier to stop Shell’s plans. In the end, they had to back down.”
Before Bode picked up the banner, the campaign against TTIP had gained little traction with the German or European public.
Later that year, Bode traveled on a tourist visa with other activists to Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to unfurl a banner in protest against China’s ongoing nuclear tests. The small group was quickly surrounded by police, and Bode spent several days in Chinese custody. “Many people inside Greenpeace were shaking their heads” in admiration, Strößenreuther said. “You need to have balls to do that kind of stuff.”
In 2001, after a stint as director of Greenpeace International, Bode left the group to found Foodwatch. He quickly found no shortage of high-profile targets — mad cow disease, high counts of dioxin in eggs, horsemeat in frozen lasagna.
His opponents accused him of scaremongering. Bode “lives from scandalization,” Germany’s then-Consumer Protection Minister Ilse Aigner said in 2010.
“That’s his business model, to gain as many members and as much funding as possible.” But as food scares dominated the headlines, Bode quickly became a public figure, giving frequent interviews and becoming a regular on television talk shows.
It was not until he joined the fight against TTIP that he became something of a household name.
All the ingredients
Before Bode picked up the banner, the campaign against TTIP had gained little traction with the German or European public. When the start of negotiations was announced, U.S. President Barack Obama heralded a potential deal as a “groundbreaking partnership.” Then-European Commission President José Manuel Barroso spoke of “real strategic importance.” Merkel quickly became one of its strongest advocates, arguing that free trade between the world’s two largest economies would create thousands of jobs, set new standards for global trade, and be of particular benefit to Germany, where exports account for every fourth job.
Opponents of the deal had concentrated their fire on fears that hormone-treated beef and chlorine-treated chicken would flood the European market. It was an alarming narrative, but one that threatened to backfire. Officials in Brussels and Washington, as well as outside experts, dismissed the fears, leaving the campaigners at risk of looking uninformed and sensationalist.
Bode saw his opening when Maritta Strasser, an activist with the advocacy group Campact, confronted then-EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht during a panel discussion with German Economy Minister Gabriel and U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman. From the back of the audience, Strasser announced that her group had collected 470,000 signatures against the trade deal, and raised her concerns about Europe’s high consumer protection standards getting undermined.
Bode presents himself as cautious, conservative, a careful watchdog reasonably concerned about encroachments on the German way of life.
The former commissioner recently told POLITICO that he had meant to tell Strasser that, in his opinion, half a million Germans should not be a determinant factor in a deal that concerned the entire EU. But the way he phrased it was clumsy, seemingly dismissive of German public opinion.
Bode recognized the ingredients for an explosive campaign: a mammoth, mysterious trade deal, an increasingly unsettled public, and distant, seemingly unfeeling officials uninterested in addressing their concerns. “I instantly had the feeling: This is a big thing,” he said in an interview at his office. What he would need to do was rip into “the arrogance” of politicians who ignore the concerns of ordinary people.
The secret of Bode’s appeal lies in his delivery. While other activists might highlight their anti-American credentials or rail against free trade, Bode presents himself as cautious, conservative, a careful watchdog reasonably concerned about encroachments on the German way of life. “He’s clever in framing his arguments,” said Jacob Schrot, founder of the Young Transatlantic Initiative, who frequently faced off against Bode in panel discussions. “He knows what triggers to pull in order to win the hearts of the audience.”
Rather than stir up fears about chlorinated chicken, Bode steered the message in a different direction, highlighting the long-term, systematic threat to Germany’s strong regulatory tradition. “The risk of food or consumer protection standards getting directly lowered is rather unrealistic,” Bode said. “The real concern with TTIP is that necessary improvements to these standards will be delayed, watered down or completely blocked.”
Bode is careful to emphasize that his resistance to TTIP is not rooted in a blanket opposition to international trade. “Supplying the world with food would not be possible without it,” he said. “But these agreements are something completely new. They serve big business instead of ordinary people, and they undermine our democratic standards.”
“He succeeded indeed in giving the protest movement a veneer of seriousness,” said Friedrich Merz, a senior politician from Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, and a strong advocate of the trade deal.
Bode’s critics say that he exaggerates or even twists the facts.
To argue his point, Bode refers to a chapter in the draft trade pact that aims to increase cooperation between regulatory agencies on both sides of the Atlantic by granting stakeholders, including companies, the possibility to comment on new legislation at an early stage. This “reinforces the tendency of lobbyists to influence the creation of new regulations,” said Bode.
Bode’s other, remarkably dry talking points include a provision in the treaty that would allow investors and companies to sue governments that introduce environmental or public health standards that damage their bottom line, as well as concerns that the agreement would undermine Europe’s “precautionary principle,” which allows regulators to take action against potentially harmful products even as the science is still being debated.
“The threshold for introducing tough laws or regulations will be higher,” the Foodwatch-chief said, who also managed to mobilize people and increase the reach of his campaign thanks to emails and online-petitions.
Bode’s critics say that he exaggerates or even twists the facts. “Thilo Bode is very good in issuing sharp warnings, while politicians or representatives from the industry are often sluggish in their response,” said Joachim Pfeiffer, a German lawmaker from Merkel’s party. “There’s a complete imbalance in the public perception about what TTIP actually is.”
Gosia Binczyk, a trade consultant at the European Commission’s representation in Berlin, accuses Bode of stirring up fears about the more controversial aspects of the agreement. “In Germany, we did not have a debate on trade for many years,” she said. “Now all the particularities of this debate emerge at once and are being discussed very emotionally.”
Berend Diekmann, from the external economic policy division at the German ministry of economic affairs, dismisses Bode’s claim that transatlantic regulatory cooperation will straightjacket consumer standards. “What we are trying to achieve is that our regulators sit together more often to see where they can find commonalities,” he said. “We can challenge speculation with facts, but whether that would have an effect is another question.”
One of Bode’s principal arguments was undermined in December, when a legal challenge by the tobacco giant Philip Morris against an Australian law mandating gruesome health warnings on cigarette packets was dismissed by an arbitral tribunal.
The case had been one of Bode’s prime exhibits of the threat posed by TTIP, and its collapse has spurred his critics to redouble their accusations of scaremongering. “The fact that he’s speaking of hypothetical scenarios … demonstrates that he can’t find anything in the texts to prove his point,” said Friedrich Merz, a former MEP and former member of the Bundestag.
In response, Bode doubled down, commissioning a legal study that argues that the fundamental principles of the EU will be undermined by the trade deal. Bode raised his concerns about a “regulatory freeze” in letters to Germany’s economic, justice and consumer protection ministers. And when they answered, with several pages of explanation of how the European Union and Germany will preserve democratic rights and protect consumer standards, he accused them of deliberately distorting the truth.
“I can’t think of any campaign in which I was lied to so much,” he said. “That’s what mobilizing people to go on the streets and demonstrate. They have the feeling that they are not being told the whole story.”
The domino principle
Recently, Bode came a step closer to claiming his first scalp. Since the beginning of the year, he has expanded his campaign geographically and substantially, opening a new office in France — where skepticism over TTIP is mounting — and shifting his focus from the negotiations with the U.S. to the smaller but already completed EU-Canada deal, the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement. “If CETA [is successful], then TTIP will follow,” he said. His domino logic works the other way as well: If he can bring down one deal, he can also wreck the other.
Bode’s efforts were instrumental in creating the public pressure that caused the EU to drop plans to ratify the deal without involving national parliaments. The decision, taken by the European Commission, could prove to be a mortal blow to CETA, subjecting the treaty’s every deal to the approval of 38 national and regional legislative bodies. It also sets a precedent for TTIP and other future trade deals, potentially subjecting them to the same legislative bottleneck.
The Commission, however, wants to apply the deal provisionally, even before all national parliaments get to vote on it, a decision Bode calls “a slap in the face of democracy.” However, he admits that the decision might not be too bad news for the treaty’s opponents, if they can use it to lambast the deal and its backers as undemocratic. “The secret of a good campaign is that the opposite side has to make such mistakes.”