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A Tale of Two Ports

Transatlantic Trade Deal, A Potential Boon For Houston, Faces Uphill Fight in Germany

Support from Germany, Europe’s largest economy and export powerhouse, is essential to the success of a U.S.-European Union free trade deal. But more than a third of Germans say, “Nein.”


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Container ships / Andreas Vallbracht
Container ships at the Port of Hamburg
When it comes to trade, much of America's attention this year has focused on a pact with Pacific Rim nations. But there's another big treaty under negotiation with Europe – the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP. It's proving just as divisive in Germany as the Asia-Pacific trade deal is here.

Just a short walk from Hamburg's historic town square stands a neo-classical building that, for more than a century, housed the city's stock exchange. Today, it remains the home of the exchange's parent body, the Hamburg Chamber of Commerce.

"We consider that TTIP will have very positive effects for Hamburg-based companies, because they are very strongly related to foreign trade," says Corinna Nienstedt, who heads the chamber's international department.

Corinna Nienstedt, Hamburg Chamber of Commerce
Andrew Schneider
Corinna Nienstedt, head of international department, Hamburg Chamber of Commerce
The U.S. and the European Union already do about $5 trillion dollars in trade and investment a year. The aim of TTIP is to boost that further, in part by bridging differences in regulations, which make it more expensive for companies from one market to do business in the other.

"TTIP will have especially positive effects for small and medium-sized companies, because they will save money," Nienstedt says, "and especially for the smaller companies, it will be easier to get access to the American market."

The treaty would also mean more shipments to Europe through the Port of Houston. Texas chemicals now face E.U. tariffs of up to 6.5 percent. For information and communication technology, they're as high as 14 percent.

With so much of Germany's economy dependent on exports, you might expect the country would be all in favor of a deal that would lower trade barriers. But a recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center reveals that more than a third of Germans actively oppose TTIP, while support for the agreement is waning.

This June, just as Chancellor Angela Merkel prepared to host the G7 Summit of world leaders near Munich, the city hosted a massive rally against both TTIP and CETA, a trade pact the E.U. is negotiating with Canada. Christoph Bautz, co-founder of the NGO Campact, was one of main speakers.

"The bad guys aren't the Americans for us," Bautz said in his address. "The bad guys are banks and companies that want to achieve a giant wave of deregulation and privatization with TTIP and CETA."

The fear is that, in lowering regulatory barriers, the treaties will make it easier for multinational corporations to undermine European health and environmental protections, which Germans widely consider the best in the world. Opponents of TTIP have been putting pressure on German city governments to come out against it. Boris Loheide is an activist with another NGO, Attac. He's based in Cologne, one of Germany's largest inland port cities.

"Nearly the whole [Cologne] city parliament said, ‘No, we don't want to have this treaty. We just don't,'” Loheide says.

Boris Loheide, Attac
Andrew Schneider
Boris Loheide, activist with Attac, at Köln Hauptbahnhof (Cologne Central Train Station)
Such resolutions opposing the treaty make it harder for representatives in the Bundestag, Germany's federal legislature, to ignore arguments against TTIP. That worries Corinna Nienstedt, who says European regulatory standards would be in greater jeopardy if the trade pact fails.

“If we do not do this with one of our biggest partner countries like the U.S.," Nienstedt says, "there will be other countries in the world – our big competitors, for example, China – who will then set the standards. And those standards may not be the standards that are related to our Western values." That's much the same argument that the White House is using to try to win support for the Asia-Pacific trade pact.

Even if U.S. and European negotiators do reach an agreement on TTIP, though, it's unlikely either Congress or the Bundestag would vote on it before 2017, after both American and German voters next go to the polls.

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Andrew Schneider

Andrew Schneider

Politics and Government Reporter

Andrew Schneider is the senior reporter for politics and government at Houston Public Media, NPR's affiliate station in Houston, Texas. In this capacity, he heads the station's coverage of national, state, and local elections. He also reports on major policy issues before the Texas Legislature and county and city governments...

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