BRUSSELS, Belgium (Reuters) — In early 2013, U.S. president Barack Obama’s call for a U.S.-EU trade deal generated such optimism in Europe that the graffiti “NO TAFTA, NO TTIP” scrawled under a bridge near the EU headquarters in Brussels was an isolated message of dissent.
More than two years on, with the graffiti still there, European officials are ruing their failure to spot early signs of opposition to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), also known unofficially as the Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA).
The bureaucrats are finally fighting back in a public relations battle against outspoken activists adept at sound bites, branding and social media.
“We barely know how to talk to ordinary people,” said one EU official involved in the commission’s pro-trade message.
Using some of the tools employed by anti-trade campaigners, the European Commission, which is negotiating with the United States for a deal that may still be a year off, has taken the unusual step of launching video clips on YouTube. It has also published leaflets, fact sheets and “myth-busting” brochures to counter what it says are misconceptions about TTIP.
With import tariffs already low, the talks focus on regulatory co-operation, with promises of a combined market of 800 million people encompassing almost half the world’s economy and gains of more than US$100 billion on both sides of the Atlantic.
While few people complain about the prospects of a car made to U.S. standards being sold in Europe and vice versa, European critics have voiced concern that the EU will lower health, consumer safety and environmental standards, for example opening up to GM crops, widely used in the U.S. but viewed with suspicion in Europe.
A pan-European protest movement known as ‘STOP TTIP’ has sprung up, supported by hard left and environmental activists, but also regular Europeans who worry about the impact on jobs, food safety and the power of multinationals.
Only 39 percent of Germans and 50 percent of French support a trade agreement between Europe and the United States, according to a Pew Research Center survey.
To deflect criticism that the world’s largest trade deal is being drawn up in secret, the commission has made public confidential texts used for its negotiations.
In tandem, the EU’s new trade chief Cecilia Malmstrom has embarked on a tour of Europe, visiting at least half of the bloc’s 28 members, delivering speeches on the benefits of TTIP.
In the same vein, on weekday mornings EU trade officials can be found giving talks to university students in the glass buildings of Brussels’ European quarter.
Some activists say TTIP will force Europeans to eat chlorine-washed chicken or meat from cattle fed growth-enhancing hormones. An EU video describes these ideas as like vampires and garlic: “pure fantasy”.
Another, full of cartoon ships sailing across the Atlantic, ends with the message: “We’re listening … we do get it!”
There are limited successes.
The European Parliament, which has proved sympathetic to the concerns of the ‘STOP TTIP’ movement, formally backed the EU-U.S. negotiations in a recent vote in Strasbourg after months of tense debate. A global “day of action” against TTIP in April lacked the massive support it sought outside Germany and Austria, where resistance to a deal is the highest in Europe.
But public support from EU governments is limited.
Asked why the commission did not simply launch a television campaign to promote TTIP, Malmstrom said: “The commission should not do campaigns. That is not our role.
“You can’t just leave the work to the commission and say: come and convince my citizens. That has to be done by governments, by the parliaments and the leaders of countries.”
European leaders have signed up to the transatlantic accord in binding joint documents but have done little at home to counter the ‘STOP TTIP’ movement.
Austrian chancellor Werner Faymann told German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung that Austria wanted an accord without investment arbitration courts, despite having agreed with EU partners to include them in U.S. trade talks.
“The member states entered into the TTIP negotiation without a real consensus. This is going to haunt us,” said Andre Sapir, a trade specialist at the Brussels-based think tank Bruegel.
So, while the commission briefs students in its offices in Brussels, on the street below protest groups are running guided tours of the places in Brussels where they say corporate lobbies are setting a distorted agenda for the trade talks.
For every YouTube video by the European Commission promoting TTIP, there are dozens with black and blood-red warnings of the terrible consequences of a EU-U.S. trade deal.
“Still haven’t a clue about TTIP after watching this video,” said a comment posted below a commission video, adding: “Pure propaganda.”