Transatlantic Trade Negotiations Face a Problem of Perceptions

Le projet de grande zone transatlantique de libre-échange n’a pas un seulement un objectif commercial. C’est un projet global mais qui est mal compris des deux côtés de l’Atlantique, écrit Guillaume Xaxier-Bender, dans un commentaire pour le German Marshall Fund.

In an 1848 essay, the French economist Frédéric Bastiat wrote, “not to know political economy is to allow oneself to be dazzled by the immediate effect of a phenomenon ; to know political economy is to take into account the sum total of all effects, both immediate and future.” His words are useful to bear in mind after the second round of Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations between the United States and the European Union was cancelled this week. There is little reason to believe that the entire process will be derailed. In an era of constant communication, there is no reason that negotiators cannot talk even when they cannot meet. Nonetheless, this forced pause to negotiations is actually to be welcomed, as behind the text of the agreement lies a bigger question : What kind of relationship do Europeans want with the United States ?

TTIP is not just about trade, or even just about economics. Concerns are multiplying in Europe over the agreement’s ambition to tackle non-tariff barriers and to work on greater compatibility and cooperation in standards and regulation. Some Europeans do fear that agreeing on issues such as the environment, agriculture, sanitary measures, intellectual property rights, and data privacy will degrade the EU’s high level of consumer protection. As such, TTIP is being perceived as a Trojan Horse for U.S. values, standards, and norms. Whether or not there are sound economic arguments to oppose TTIP, many still wave the prospect of Europe’s supposed Americanization as a red flag ; they point to the dangers of an imbalanced partnership. As a result, there is a widening gap between the technicality of the negotiations and the political perception of the agreement. And today, in international affairs, perceptions often guide decisions.

To many Europeans, the economic gains of the agreement may not outweigh its political and social costs. For them, opposition in principle is preferable to a more integrated transatlantic economy. But as technical discussions continue on with the ambitious goal of reaching a framework agreement by the end of 2014, it is crucial for Europeans to remember that they are engaged in a negotiation. This requires searching for compromise and also requires relativity and foresight. It calls for thinkers, policymakers, and advocates across the political and ideological spectrum to look at what is not immediately apparent. This means not just viewing TTIP as the cumulative aggregate of the United States and European economies or perceiving it as a clandestine assimilation of standards and values. TTIP is about the transatlantic economy as a whole, and its ability to continue being a driving force in global affairs. This may appear obvious. By design, trade agreements affect third parties, whether economically or politically, regionally, or globally.

While this year’s Transatlantic Trends Survey found that 56 percent of Europeans believe that trade and investment negotiations with the United States would help their economy grow, it remains unclear whether they support a comprehensive partnership with the United States. The growing unpopularity of negotiations hints at a possible rejection by a handful of Europeans of any kind of stronger relationship with the United States. With European elections scheduled for mid-2014, and with the rise of nationalistic sentiments all across the continent, policymakers might struggle to convince publics of the larger benefits of the transatlantic relationship and, ultimately, of TTIP. 

Returning from the newly United States in 1832, Alexis de Tocqueville could not help “fear that men may reach a point where they look on every new theory as a danger, every innovation as a toilsome trouble, every social advance as a first step toward revolution, and that they may absolutely refuse to move at all.” Beyond trade and investment, TTIP is the belief that 29 countries and over 820 million people can move together, as long as they can see beyond the immediate.