April 9, 2014 11:02 pm

Transatlantic trade deal draws public scepticism

US and EU officials are struggling to gain public backing for the goals of a large transatlantic trade deal – with Americans and Germans doubting the merits of cutting tariffs, slashing barriers for investment, and setting common regulatory standards, according to a poll released on Wednesday.

The survey – taken from late February to early March – generally shows majority support for the trade talks, which were launched less than a year ago by Washington and Brussels in an attempt to boost economic growth and rekindle transatlantic relations.

But most Americans and Germans are balking at some of the specific proposals and are in sharp disagreement over the merits of harmonising environmental, food safety and data privacy standards.

The survey results could make it harder for EU and US negotiators to make concessions to advance the talks, which have already lived through four rounds and are beginning to tackle the toughest issues and experiencing the first open disagreements.

The tepid level of public backing for the so-called Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership could also galvanise supporters within the EU and the US – including business groups – to more forcefully tout the benefits they see to the wider public.

“The poll underscores how difficult this is – maybe more difficult than people originally thought,” says Bruce Stokes, director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center, which conducted the survey in association with the Bertelsmann Foundation. “Americans and Germans consistently say trade is good for their countries but when you get into specific details there are doubts,” he said.

Americans, Germans prefer own standards (% trust American/European standard for...) Source: Pew Research Center – Bertelsmann Foundation survey, Q4a-d
  US   Germany  
  European standards % American standards % European standards % American standards %
Auto safety 33 55 91 4
Data privacy 29 49 85 3
Environment safety 27 60 96 2
Food safety 22 67 94 2

José Manuel Barroso, EU commission president, and Barack Obama, US president, placed the agreement at the heart of the transatlantic relationship at the EU-US summit last month. Its geopolitical rationale has also gained traction as a result of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

But a final deal, which was hoped for by the end of this year, is now more likely to come next year or could slide into 2016, the final full year of Mr Obama’s presidency.

According to the poll, just 41 per cent of Americans and 38 per cent of Germans want to see all duties removed from goods imported to both countries, while 39 per cent of Americans and 41 per cent of Germans want to remove all investment restrictions between the US and the EU. Both are seen as important objectives of the TTIP.

While 76 per cent of Americans back the goal of establishing common standards for products and services, only 45 per cent of Germans feel the same way, amid doubts about the safety of US-produced crops and meat, and mistrust of US commercial data collection stoked by last year’s National Security Agency spying revelations.

“TTIP suffers from a ‘double deficit’: there is a lack of understanding and a lack of trust,” the Bertelsmann Foundation said in its analysis of the poll.

The US and EU are facing considerable pressure from domestic opponents of the agreement. For instance, the Pew-Bertelsmann poll showed that 65 per cent of Germans would prefer to see Berlin negotiate international trade agreements, rather than Brussels. The finding comes after Germany took the unusual move of insisting that the contentious investor-state dispute settlement mechanism, an arbitration structure between companies and governments, should be excluded from the talks despite support from EU negotiators.

In the US, the Obama administration has faced a big stumbling block in its efforts to gain “Trade Promotion Authority”, which would allow trade deals including TTIP to pass more rapidly through Congress.

Harry Reid, the Democratic Senate majority leader, has signalled that TPA would be on hold until at least the November congressional elections, amid opposition from key elements of his party’s base, including labour and environmental groups. However, the poll shows that 60 per cent of Democrats support the TTIP, compared to only 44 per cent of Republicans, suggesting trade scepticism on the left may be confined to a narrow but vocal segment.

Republican lawmakers are generally much more supportive of trade deals, but many of their voters, particularly staunch conservative Tea Party members, are unhappy to bless Mr Obama on any big initiative, mistrusting his administration and explaining their opposition to TTIP. In the US, there is also a remarkable generational gap in support for trade deals, with the young being much more likely to support the deals than elderly Americans.

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