Germany rallies reinforcement to pitch for EU-U.S. trade deal

By Caroline Copley

BERLIN (Reuters) – European and U.S. trade officials came to Berlin on Tuesday to try to drum up support for a transatlantic trade deal that faces growing opposition in Europe’s biggest economy.

Support among the German public for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) has fallen sharply over the past year, with many worrying it will weaken food, environmental and auto safety standards and give U.S. firms too much power.

Only 41 percent of Germans think TTIP is a good thing, according to a Pew Research poll published last month, down from 55 percent a year earlier. In contrast, 50 percent of Americans are in favor.

Alarmed by the level of resistance, the German government is now organizing open meetings to try and dispel fears about the pact.

“We have a unique opportunity here, we’re both high-wage, well-regulated economies,” said U.S. trade representative Michael Froman, who flew in for the forum with students and school children in Berlin.

“That gives us the opportunity to work together to help set standards around the world. Nobody wants a race to the bottom.”

Proponents say a deal would strengthen a transatlantic trade relationship already worth $3 billion a day by removing barriers to business and bolster the West’s power to shape world trade.

“We Europeans may feel like we’re economically strong and powerful. But if we’re honest with ourselves there are fewer and fewer of us,” Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel said, referring to shrinking populations.

One of the biggest sticking points for any deal is an investor protection clause wanted by the Americans that critics say would allow companies to bully governments.

EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom said it was a myth that TTIP would undermine the rule of democratic law.

“Member states have the right to regulate to protect their citizens (..) and this can never be put into question by a company. It’s not about changing laws,” she said.

To move the talks forward, the EU Commission has proposed a change that includes setting up a permanent arbitration court.

Froman said the United States agreed on the need to improve the contested investor-to-state dispute settlement (ISDS), without commenting on the specifics of the proposal.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said at the weekend she hopes an accord can still be struck before U.S. President Barack Obama leaves office in early 2017, so that transatlantic trade can keep pace with the Pacific region.

Asked whether that timeframe is realistic, Malmstrom called it “feasible” and said talks would become more intensive after the summer.

(Reporting by Caroline Copley; editing by Erik Kirschbaum/Ruth Pitchford)