Trans-Atlantic Ties A Builder of Bridges

Fred Irwin, the former president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Germany and current president of Handelsblatt Global Edition, was awarded Germany's order of merit for promoting German-American friendship. His next challenge is the E.U.-U.S. free trade pact.
Fred Irwin (right), the former president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Germany, walks among the greats of German business, in this case Heinrich Hiesinger, CEO of ThyssenKrupp.

When it comes to praise, Fred Irwin prefers to give than receive.

So it wasn't surprising when the native New Yorker and long-time resident of Germany immediately tried to pass along credit for the German Order of Merit he received yesterday in Wiesbaden.

“This isn’t just an award for myself, but one for the entire American Chamber of Commerce in Germany and its members,” said the 72-year-old honorary president of the AmCham and a former top executive at Citibank.

Mr. Irwin has lived in Frankfurt for more than 40 years, after moving to Germany in 1967 as a soldier with the U.S. Army. He headed AmCham, the principal U.S. business group with ties to Germany, from 1991 to 2013. Under his leadership, AmCham membership grew from 1,200 to about 3,000 today.

A gifted networker and accomplished salesman, Mr. Irwin knows the Who's Who of business and politics on both sides of the pond. Most people call him “Fred” or the “American Economy Man.”

His charm, optimism and cordiality serve him well in making friends and building bridges.

Americans think very positively of Germany and the chancellor, but German citizens have lost a great deal of trust in the United States. Fred Irwin, order of merit honoree

Mr. Irwin is good with people, but the banker also knows his trade. For many years, he was a manager at the German subsidiary of Citigroup. As a member of the supervisory board of Opel, the German unit of General Motors, he was witness to and mediator in a clash of cultures between the German carmaker and its American parent.

For his lifetime service on behalf of the German-American friendship, Mr. Irwin was awarded the fourth level German Order of Merit, which is bestowed upon people for their contributions to society.

Not many foreigners receive the honor. Mr. Irwin has received two orders of merit before, for introducing school children to business topics, which are not taught in German schools, as well as for convincing more than 400 U.S. companies to invest in former East Germany.

His current focus is the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP, an unprecedented effort to lower customs barriers on both sides of the Atlantic to create the world's biggest free trade zone.

Negotiations between the E.U. and United States on the proposal, which began in 2013 and are now in their eighth round, appear to have faltered in Germany on concerns, dismissed as inaccurate by supporters, that the pact would undermine German environmental, health and safety standards.

As honorary president of the AmCham, Mr. Irwin is fighting the good fight on TTIP, which he said would lead to job creation on both sides of the Atlantic. “Today I tour cities and villages trying to convince the Germans of ... TTIP,” said Mr. Irwin, adding: “That’s not an easy task.”

The biggest obstacle to German-U.S. relations today is a lack of trust, said Mr. Irwin. While he pointed out that the U.S. government and Germany have excellent working relations, trust between the nations has been shattered.

“Americans think very positively of Germany and the chancellor,” Mr. Irwin said, “but German citizens have lost a great deal of trust in the United States.”

The poor relations can be traced to leaks by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, the Iraq war and NSA spying in Germany, which drew negative headlines after it came to light that U.S. officials had secretly tapped Ms. Merkel's cellphone, according to Mr. Irwin.

This lack of trust, he added, is weighing on negotiations between the E.U. and the U.S. on the trade pact.

“Germany and the United States used to have a sort of family relationship for many years. Then the trust was broken in the family, and now they’re having a hard time fixing it,” as Mr. Irwin put it.

That’s why, once again, both Germany and the United States have turned to Mr. Irwin.


Torsten Riecke is Handelsblatt's international correspondent. Franziska Roscher is an editor with Handelsblatt Global Edition. To contact the authors: [email protected]; [email protected].