Frozen chicken – it’s humbled some of the great leaders of modern history. Konrad Adenauer, Charles de Gaulle and John F. Kennedy. Men who feared neither the Soviets nor the Nazis nor the Man in the Moon – all of them, no match for poultry, its drumsticks, wings and breasts. Or, more precisely, the issue of whether and how this frozen commodity might cross the Atlantic free from import tariffs.
The annexes to the Elysée Treaty, a document of German-French amity forming one of the pillars of the EU, tabulates the extensive and bone-dry disputes over the Chicken Import Question. U.S.-European free trade never got off the ground because of the issue.
In the meantime, the world has gotten bigger and more diverse. But the ancient fear of change and competition also sways Germany’s Minister for Economic Affairs Sigmar Gabriel’s brother-in-spirit on the TTIP front, Donald Trump.
That’s because the other side is no less demanding. Thanks to Italy’s labyrinthine town alleys, European cars have to have folding side mirrors – something superfluous in the land of endless prairies. Over there, cheese from unpasteurized milk is considered as dangerous as hormone-treated ham is over here.
The devil, as always, is in the details. France’s film industry fears Hollywood; Germany’s largely state-funded culture industry fears the viewer who might just replace the subsidies for unviewed, unheard products.
But it’s not so much the foreseeable failure as the treatment of negotiations over the “Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership” that speaks volumes on the state of German politics (and not the pros and cons of TTIP itself). Minister Gabriel unilaterally declared the TTIP talks a failure. Neither the actual leader of the European side, the EU Commission, nor partner states such as Sweden, endorse Gabriel’s pronouncement. Backing for his funeral address has come only from France, which already once killed a grand bargain over frozen chicken, paid for by Germany’s export industry.
Somehow the politicized Germans, out of love for the sour regional apples and potatoes, have forgotten that they flourish from something else and, in terms of population, are the world’s greatest trading nation whose astonishing prosperity came thanks not least to free trade.
Back on its wheels
They have forgotten that the reduction of U.S. tariff barriers after 1945 first enabled Wolfsburg’s VW Beetles to crawl out onto the global market and earn the money there that would rebuild Germany back home. The U.S. replaced cars from Detroit with others from Wolfsburg, Rüsselsheim (Opel) and Stuttgart (Mercedes, Porsche) not because they loved Germany but to get the country back on its wheels against the threat from the Soviet bloc. The same is true in reverse: If the Americans get ugly on free trade, it’s not so much the French who will suffer – the world will always want champagne – but the Germans. In today’s world, without TTIP, trade could quickly fracture into diverging continental plates, taking Germany’s prosperity with it.
It’s a similar story with rejection of international trade tribunals. These courts safeguard the Germans and their direct investments totaling a fabulous 1.2 trillion euros from expropriation by kleptocracies in some parts of the developing world. Today’s Germans reject the tribunals, probably also because Germany’s political leaders don’t even try to support the country’s long-term export interests. Germans cheer the elimination of investments totaling billions of euros, for instance by Sweden’s state-run energy company Vattenfall, thanks to Germany’s nuclear phaseout. The state is always right. The old faith in the paternal hand and authoritarian tendencies are again the mighty touchstone of their fantasies of power.
And foreign investments? Those are just corporations, we can do without those, most people in the civil service or talking heads paid by working men and women believe. It’s astonishing how Germany’s business community allows itself to be bossed around. Its leaders believe they can keep Chancellor Merkel and the rest on their side with just a few party donations. Gabriel stood up for business for a long time; it’s true. But politicians don’t live on directly donated funding as much as on the spoils they win in elections.
Up in arms
And the voters are up in arms against TTIP. The agenda in Germany is now largely being set by so-called non-governmental organizations, many of them financed, incidentally, from within the leftist camp. These NGOs are, in most cases, nothing but dealmakers who need emotional campaigns to maximize their donation revenue.
For them, the inexplicable secrecy surrounding TTIP is a perfect breeding ground, even better than the seals that refuse to go extinct; and people don’t cough up as much money for sharks. But the fight against chlorinated chickens – that’s where the vegans open up their imitation leather wallets. And, while the politically naïve CEOs and CFOs keep sewing their golden parachutes for the worst-case scenario, their lavishly endowed association lobbyists snore in the downy beds of the Berlin court and dine with the golden tableware constantly refilled with membership dues. That is how Germany’s business elite lives in its ignorance of political reality, in its own bizarre fairy-tale existence. They have handed over the fight for TTIP to a socialist and, as their only contribution, commissioned a PR agency that works harder for Merkel’s grip on power than its own industrial clients. Or was that, perhaps, the real deal? Even the unions are working flat out to destroy their export-based jobs as fast as possible.
Okay, from Germany’s perspective, TTIP is a goner. But not because the negotiations have of course been tough with both compromise and resolve being essential. They’re dead in the water because Germany’s elites in business and politics have shortsightedly permitted the branches on which they’ve built their nests to be sawed off.
It could be that they’ll soon fall to the ground and land on their heads like all the other folks. The eggs will be broken, that’s for sure.
Roland Tichy is one of Germany’s most renowned business journalists. He also runs the website “Tichys Einblick” www.rolandtichy.de