As a new round of EU-US free trade talks has begun in Brussels, a group of German business leaders was among the thousands of anti-TTIP protests in hopes to prevent the trade pact from becoming reality.
Fella Maschinenbau is a small engineering company based in Amorbach in rural northern Bavaria. It employs 58 people and specializes in tailor-made hydroelectric turbines, many of them for export.
Sometime last year, the company’s boss, Martina Römmelt-Fella, became interested in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). A free trade deal between EU and US would be good for small companies like hers, she was told. But when she asked the chamber of commerce and other industry lobby groups for details, she did not get satisfying answers.
“So we started to dig deeper into the issue,” she told DW. “And we’ve found out that this agreement will not necessarily be good for small and mid-size companies (SMEs).”
SMEs vs. TTIP
In the fall of 2015, Römmelt-Fella and others launched “SME against TTIP”, an initiative that has since grown to 2,100 supporters, all of them entrepreneurs and small companies opposing the trade deal. Römmelt-Fella points to one of the most controversial elements, the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) mechanism – private tribunals that is which are to settle disputes between investors and the state.
German judges slap TTIP down
The German Magistrates Association (DRB) has dealt a major blow to one of the key elements of the TTIP deal. The judges said special courts allowing firms to sue countries were unnecessary and “had no legal basis.”
“The average cost of litigation in these courts is about 8 million euros. Small companies usually cannot afford that,” she said.
When it comes to norms and regulations, said Römmelt-Fella, the trade agreement would make business more complicated, not less. European companies go by ISO-norms and the CE label, which proves a product’s conformity with European standards. “In the US, there are 18 different certifiers, and each state can have different requirements. And this is not about to change, the US government has said.”
Organic vs. GMO
Many companies supporting the anti-TTIP initiative belong to the German food sectors, especially organically producing farmers. One of them is Gottfried Härle, a fourth generation beer brewer from Leutkirch in the Allgäu region in Germany’s South. The question of whether the EU and the US would recognize their respective standards makes him nervous, especially when it comes to the labelling of genetically-modified crops (GMO).
“Consumers won’t be able to tell anymore which product is made from genetically modified organisms and which isn’t. For me as an organic producer, that’s a big problem,” he told DW.
Härle also fears competition from cheaper US brewers in the sector because due to the limited shelf life of his beer he caters only for customers in the region.
In the months ahead, the “SME against TTIP” initiative wants to raise the pressure on politicians, and convince many more business leaders that the planned free trade deal is not good for them.
Business vs. business
Härle is aware that not many business leaders share their goals. “Some trade officials do not look favorably on our initiative,” he said, meaning first of all the German Association for Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (BVMW) lobby group.
BVMW President, Mario Ohoven, thinks the critics are “throwing the baby out with the bath water”. Instead of rejecting the trade deal outright, he argues, BVMW was aiming to make to strike a beatter deal for SMEs. “We have accomplished a lot already for small and mid-size companies,” Ohoven said.
However, the members of the “SME against TTIP” campaign remain critical, and have joined protests against TTIP in Brussels on Monday.