When we at vom Hoff Kommunikation in Germany prepared for PRBI‘s annual meeting in Portland last summer, we were especially looking forward to discussing the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with our US counterparts. The free trade agreement which is currently being negotiated between the US and the EU had dominated German newspapers and blogs for months. In the absence of any reliable information about what it would eventually entail, petitions against it were already wildly successful. Would Americans be as apprehensive as the notoriously cautious Germans or would they embrace the opportunities which the trade agreement is promising? Neither, as it turns out. Seeing the questioning looks of our American colleagues when we mentioned TTIP, it dawned on us that the agreement had not provoked nearly as much coverage and attention in the United States as it had in Europe’s largest economy. Turns out we were right: When the delegates held a press conference following their seventh round of negotiations in early October, not one US media outlet was present.
So what is TTIP about, why does it have Germans concerned and why should Americans start caring more about it? The US and European Union together represent 60% of global GDP, 33% of world trade in goods and 42% of world trade in services. A free trade area between the two would represent potentially the largest regional free-trade agreement in history, directly affecting more than 800 million citizens on both sides , covering 46% of world GDP and generating millions of new jobs. Negotiations started in 2013 at the disposition of US President Obama and the EU Commission. They are expected to conclude in 2014 or 2015. Discussions revolve around three areas:
- Removing custom duties on goods and restrictions on services, gaining better access to public markets, and making it easier to invest.
- Improved regulatory coherence and cooperation by dismantling unnecessary regulatory barriers such as bureaucratic duplication of effort.
- Improved cooperation when it comes to setting international standards.
Proponents argue that passage of the trans-Atlantic pact will result in multilateral economic growth. The European Commission expects an increase of as much as 50% in overall trade between the respective partners. It also claims that TTIP would boost the EU’s economy by €120 billion, the US economy by €90 billion and the economy in the rest of the world by €100 billion. Opponents of TTIP fear that it will increase corporate power while restricting government’s abilities to regulate markets for public benefit. They criticize the ongoing closed negotioations for lack of transparency and have called for having the agreement debated in the US Congress and the European parliament as well as national parliaments and other transparent forums.
In Germany, this controversy became manifest in the fear of the „chlorine-chicken.“ Now infamous in Germany, this buzzword might require a brief explanation for readers elsewhere: It appears that American chicken are disinfected with chlorine, a practice that is not allowed in the EU. If TTIP passes, German consumers might soon find chlorine-chicken at their local supermarket. Never mind that EU livestock is routinely treated with antibiotics in a manner prohibited in the US. Or that the US conversely applies much higher standards than the EU in other areas of public health. Or even that those fearing a race to the bottom where norms and standards are concerned while painting horror scenarios of deregulation are the same people who have ridiculed EU regulationism for decades. The chlorine-chicken became the symbol for everything that should be feared and rejected about TTIP. How did that happen? Surveys show that Germans who eagerly follow the media coverage on TTIP have a negative view of the agreement compared to those who haven‘t read up on the subject at all. Obviously those well-informed citizens must have valid concerns based on the balanced information provided to them, right? One look at the headlines of leading national and local newspapers alike challenges that notion – it’s the chlorine-chicken again, cackling at us from every front page. Sure, it is the media’s job to reduce complexity. And TTIP is as compley as it gets, requiring multilayered knowledge of economy, history and international relations. But every consumer instinctively feels that chicken treated with chlorine can’t be healthy and that it must be a harbinger of other products restricting consumer’s health and freedom of choice to come along with TTIP. But, as happens so often, the media’s eagerness to explain TTIP in a nutshell comes at the price of fair and balanced coverage of a multilayered subject.
Not only the media has played a role in the negative image TTIP has acquired in Germany though. Social media activists and NGOs take the same line of argument. In the absence of comprehensive information about the many varied benefits and, indeed, possible negative implications of TTIP, the average media consumer is excused for associating TTIP with the case of the chlorine chicken and for being less than thrilled about it. The consumer media in the US on the other hand is also excused for paying little to no attention to the ongoing negotiations as the US media prioritizes coverage of domestic issues and the numerous military crises all over the world. It is still a shame given that passage of TTIP will have a huge economic impact on companies and and individuals alike. It seems that the White House as well as the EU Commission have underestimated the role of communications during the negotiating process. They may have hoped to open their results to public discussion after negotiations are completed sometime down the road, but things do not work that way anymore. While the economic fate of more than 800 million people is being negotiated behind closed doors, the discussion has already started, online and offline, and the interpretation is left to third parties who can only guess at the contents of the agreement.
While opposition to TTIP is forming left and right on one side of the Atlantic and it is ignored on the other side, where is the pro-TTIP communication? Governments, corporations and many NGOs have a vested interest in promoting TTIPs benefits and participate in a constructive dialogue about its shortcomings. Why does no one emphasize the political effect of TTIP as a positive signal in otherwise difficult times between the transatlantic parties? Why does no one tell the story of positive examples? The German reunification for instance, which didn’t lead to a race to the bottom when two systems of industrial standards were combined, but rather to a new and improved set of standards for everyone. Who initiates an exchange between the affected parties to figure out what everyone needs and expects from a free trade agreement and which intercultural hurdles must be overcome together? We think that public and private institutions are just now catching up to the importance of communications for TTIP. We as agencies will undoubtedly soon be asked to tell a different story, connect people and mediate between business cultures. Working with an international network of boutique agencies, we at PRBI are uniquely equipped to face this challenge together and further international cooperation and understanding.