Lowering business barriers between United States and Europe would open opportunities for all.
Trade is good. Trade between Europe and the United States is even better. In a nutshell, these are the results of a recent survey by the Pew Research Center and the German Bertelsmann Foundation. Of the American respondents, 72% support increased trade with the European Union and 79% with Germany. In Germany, whose economy traditionally relies on exports, 75% would welcome more trade with the United States.
There is good news for those supportive of a closer transatlantic trade relationship: the next round of negotiations for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) will begin on May in Washington DC. The goal is nothing less than creating the world's largest free trade zone.
The arguments for a comprehensive agreement are manifold. Careful estimates put the number of jobs that could be created on both sides of the Atlantic as a result of the agreement at several hundred thousand. A bold deal would mean more than $300 billion added to the greater region's economy. With the successful conclusion of negotiations, more than one-third of international trade and almost 40% of global industrial output would suddenly be free of red tape, customs duties or tariffs.
Despite those impressive opportunities, a look at the fine print of the Pew/Bertelsmann survey reveals a paradox. While a clear majority sees the benefits of additional trade, almost every second German and American does not think that the TTIP would be beneficial to their country.
Where does the skepticism come from in an export-driven economy such as Germany, or in a champion of free markets like the United States? Is it a textbook case of German angst? Is it a sign of isolationist tendencies in the United States?
It has been easy to classify some of those who oppose the TTIP as irrational and uninformed. For example, German anti-globalization groups, who need the popular outrage to recruit activists and raise funds, called the TTIP a "free trade trap" or even a "danger to democracy."Some Americans (Wisconsinites, really) feared for their Oktoberfest beer or Black Forest ham, as some regional European products must actually come from the region that they carry in name. As funny or outright ridiculous as some of these claims might sound, most of these concerns have to be taken seriously.
I have always been a fervent supporter of a transatlantic free trade agreement. Retrospectively, I declare myself guilty of having been so enthusiastic that I might not have given enough attention to the doubts and concerns that exist about the TTIP. In fact, the Pew numbers question whether proponents of the agreement, especially responsible politicians on both sides, have done enough to explain the benefits, listen and respond to the questions of their constituents, and design the negotiations in as transparent a way as possible.
So what are the biggest concerns?
Recurring themes are weaker standards in consumer and environmental protection, an erosion of workers' rights and a lack of data protection. I find it interesting and to an extent reassuring that citizens on both sides of the Atlantic share similar doubts about the impact of the TTIP on their life. Take for example negotiations on agricultural products and food. While Americans do not generally share the European fear of chlorine-washed chickens, it is very hard to explain to a European why cheese made from raw milk is banned in several states.
But friends of chicken wings and Camembert need not despair, as there is one important point that is often left out of the discussion and might help to alleviate many of those concerns: what the TTIP tries to achieve is mutual acceptance of standards, not the complete harmonization thereof. For example, a drug that had to undergo the costly and time-consuming process to gain market access twice could, under the TTIP, be accepted under one set of regulations and would hence be available to patients throughout the whole free trade zone.
This principle of mutual acceptance of American versus European standards is in fact already a time-tested and established practice in many areas. A German car is tested along different, albeit similar, criteria as an American car. Nobody would ban a car from market access because the indicator is orange instead of red. Likewise, it wouldn't make any sense not to accept airplanes by Boeing in European airspace. The rationale is: despite the different approach and differences in detail, we trust your standards enough to accept them in our market.
This idea would be applied to additional sectors and industries as the transatlantic free trade zone takes shape, without watering down any existing standards, labor regulations or rules for data protection. Over time, the free trade zone could become the nucleus for new, evolved standards that help to set global benchmarks and best practices, thus replacing different sets of global standards that might not currently fulfill the criteria we envision for a socially and environmentally sustainable future.
Having said that, there are a number of challenging points on the agenda that will not be easily resolved. Those leading the negotiations would be well advised to keep in mind that the negotiations can only be successful if they earn the trust of their constituents. The best way to do that is to explain the benefits and to make the process as transparent and inclusive as possible.
How this can be done is one of the things I have learned in my new role at the World Economic Forum in Geneva, Switzerland. The Forum, with its trademark multi-stakeholder approach, has proven time and again that it is worth the effort to invite even the harshest critics to the table. This requires time and resources. But by including as many different voices as possible, both the quality and the result of the process will benefit.
The opportunities of unhindered trade across the Atlantic are huge. Let's not endanger the success of the negotiations by keeping doors and minds closed to the concerns of European and American citizens.
Philipp Rösler is Managing Director of the World Economic Forum in Geneva, Switzerland and former vice-chancellor and minister for economic affairs of Germany.
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