Klaus Müller has been executive director of the Federation of German Consumer Organizations for a year. The economist and former politician has been at the forefront of discussions over the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a free trade agreement between the United States and European Union.
The agreement has been billed by the German government as consumer friendly and beneficial to the German economy, but critics are worried that it will lead to an influx of U.S. goods and watered down European trade standards. Mr. Müller is now calling for a slimmed down version of TTIP that excludes the more controversial areas such as food regulation and better protects foreign investors.
Handelsblatt: You have already made numerous critical comments about TTIP. Are you an opponent of free trade?
Mr. Müller: No. I think the debate is not doing the subject justice. This has a lot to do with organizations such as the Federation of German industries using illusory figures to pretend to know how economic growth will increase with TTIP. Unfortunately for them, they recently had to admit they miscalculated. As a consumer advocate, you can’t be against fair trade. Take the E.U. common market. From a consumer’s point of view, it was worth it, but that doesn’t mean everything is running smoothly.
What bothers you about TTIP?
I have nothing against norms and standards being made uniform in tariffs or machinery construction. But the cultural, ethical and historical differences in foods, cosmetics and the regulation of chemicals are very great. That is why we want to exclude these areas.
TTIP opponents have been courting public opinion for months. For example, Thilo Bode, the founder of the food industry watchdog Foodwatch, has written a bestselling book called The Free Trade Lie, and the German Confederation of German Trade Unions, DGB, has called for demonstrations against TTIP. What do you think of these forms of protest?
My federation consciously has not joined with the free trade critics. Their black-and-white thinking doesn’t do the debate any good. From a consumer protection point of view, it’s about more complex subjects such as the issue of common standards or the regulation of arbitration proceedings for investors. I wouldn’t present that at a demonstration, but would prefer to negotiate it in tough bargaining.
Are critics like Mr. Bode and the DGB putting an essentially sensible agreement at risk?
There are many reasons why emotions are so heated. One of them is the method of the protests. Everyone is using the style of means that serves them best. I don’t call for demonstrations and I warn about polemic statements. I believe in the power of a calm, level-headed argument. But one thing is clear: TTIP needs to be trimmed down if it is to be saved.
Are politicians also responsible for the negotiations reaching impasse and the population turning against TTIP?
The old European Commission [the E.U.’s executive arm] under Manuel Barroso along with the commissioner of trade, Karel De Gucht, ran the negotiations into a wall. This charge must be made against them. They didn’t grasp the scope of the agreement. They didn’t publish the negotiations mandate and didn’t involve the national parliaments.
Was there too much secret diplomacy?
The idea of being able to pull off such a crucial agreement as a kind of secret mission is wrong. This provoked a lot of concerns and protests. Jean-Claude Juncker [the new Commission president] and the new commissioner for Trade, Cecilia Malmström, are making a much stronger effort now.
What are they doing better?
They are providing more transparency. Many documents now are being published on the Internet giving an insight into the E.U. positions. Unfortunately, we still don’t know the intermediate results of the negotiations. The members of the German parliament also have no access. This demand on the E.U. Commission remains.
Is the German government contributing to the improvement?
I sit on Minister for Economic Affairs Sigmar Gabriel’s TTIP advisory board. He understands there is a sensitivity in society about the subject and has backed the publishing of the negotiations mandate. It’s a first step.
Mr. Gabriel wants to establish an international commercial tribunal to settle trade disputes. What do you think of the proposal?
The fact that governments treat foreign investors differently to local investors is a problem. An answer must be found. Court cases in arbitration tribunals, however, are not transparent and are decided in the first instance. The international commercial tribunal must be transparent with a process of appeal allowed, and clearly confine itself to cases of discrimination against foreign investors.
So far, the United States doesn’t want to participate.
Ms. Malmström and Mr. Gabriel must now drive a hard bargain. When it is a matter of the United States and Europe interacting as equals, it must be made clear to the Americans there will be no TTIP if a sensible solution isn’t found.
Anja Stehle is a Handelsblatt correspondent in Berlin. To contact the author: [email protected]