Peter Altmaier is an optimist. This weekend, addressing the grim state of US-European relations, Germany’s economics minister repeated his call to start negotiations on a new trans-Atlantic trade deal.
But few share Mr. Altmaier’s confidence in such a far-reaching solution. There is little support within the EU for a reboot of comprehensive trade talks; memories are too fresh of popular opposition in Europe to the last such attempt, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP, which US President Donald Trump abandoned shortly after he took office last year.
According to a joint survey by the American Council on Germany and the think tank Atlantik-Brücke, one-third of Americans are optimistic a free trade agreement with Europe will be concluded under the Trump administration, but only 14 percent of Germans share this view.
Europe's business community is also skeptical. Wolfgang Eder, boss of Voestalpine, an Austrian steelmaker, told Handelsblatt that the political risk of restarting TTIP talks is simply too great and that it was better to stick to smaller, more manageable issues.
Negotiating environmental and social standards with the Trump administration will go nowhere. Matthias Miersch, parliamentary vice-chair, Social Democratic Party
Last week, in an 11th-hour decree, Mr. Trump extended the EU's exemption from new US steel and aluminum tariffs for steel and aluminum imports. But he warned a further decision on the matter would be announced on June 1. The EU’s position remains that, while it would welcome trade talks, it refuses to negotiate under the threat of protectionist measures.
Since taking office, Mr. Trump has complained that EU tariff regulations are unfair to US manufacturers, threatening in particular to impose tariffs on German carmakers and their suppliers. The Americans often point to the EU’s 10 percent tariff on cars imported from the US – an issue the EU says it can address, but only if the US opens its markets for agricultural produce and public procurement.
Any talks towards a new agreement, sometimes dubbed “TTIP Light,” would require a renewed mandate from the EU’s 28 member states. This process could last many months and highlight tensions and conflicts of interest. For example, Germany wants to protect its industrial exports to the US, while France is much more concerned about non-tariff obstacles to agricultural produce and public procurement.
But Mr. Altmaier’s support for a “TTIP Light” also has opponents in Germany. His coalition partners, the center-left Social Democrats, were deeply divided over the original TTIP and are reluctant to see any resurrection. Matthias Miersch, a vice-chairman of the SPD parliamentary party, told Handelsblatt that "negotiating environmental and social standards with the Trump administration will go nowhere."
But speculation about a redux could have positive effects, says David Kleimann, a trade expert at the Brussels-based economics think tank ECIPE. Talks could buy time for all sides, taking the heat out of the tense dispute, he added.
Till Hoppe covers foreign affairs for Handelsblatt; Silke Kersting focuses on consumer protection, construction, environmental policy and climate change; Hans-Peter Siebenhaar specializes in media and telecommunications; and Klaus Stratmann covers energy policy and politics. Brían Hanrahan adapted this story into English for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the authors: [email protected], [email protected], [email protected]