World Economy

Germans oppose Obama trade plan, but say they don't hate Americans

Consumer rights activists take part in a march to protest against the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) in Berlin, Germany, September 17, 2016.
Fabrizio Bensch | Reuters

BERLIN — U.S. President Barack Obama was a subject of derision Saturday as hundreds of thousands of Germans across the country marched against a White House-backed trade deal.

Politicians including Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have been bought off by big corporations, demonstrators insisted as they marched down Berlin's Karl-Marx Allee, and that's why those leaders push so hard for free trade agreements. Despite claims from politicians and economists that trade deals yield universal benefits, the protesters argued that such agreements serve only to make corporate masters wealthier at the expense of the rest of the population.

Saturday's protests railed against two deals: the proposed EU-U.S. Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), and the unratified Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) between Canada and the EU. The demonstrators — about 70,000 in Berlin and another 250,000 across six more German cities, according to organizers — directed most of their ire against the U.S. deal.

Arguments against TTIP sounded decidedly more anti-corporatist on the ground.

"It's not good for our small farmers, our small companies, when the big companies get to rewrite the laws," said Annie, a 17-year-old Berliner who came out to the demonstrations with her classmates.

Explaining that she likes the U.S. — she studied there for several months — Annie said it was the size and power of American companies that worried her. "Our region lives by small companies," she said.

Have TTIP talks really failed?
Have TTIP talks really failed?

Saturday's protests were diverse affairs: Old-guard socialists mingled with barefoot environmentalists, internet freedom fighters, political party representatives, taxation reformers, welfare workers, wildlife preservationists, anti-fascists, food safety campaigners and all manner of unionists. There was also a man dressed as an anti-American bald eagle.

But even that demonstrator — who brought out an effigy of Obama with texts declaring him a liar and murderer — was fundamentally critiquing large corporations and their control over politicians when he declared in a sign that "TTIP and CETA is social murder dictated by the US."

"Capitalism deprives us of all social foundations for life," said one of his signs, while another claimed the "American way of life" had come under the control of companies like Nike and Coca-Cola.

"I guess it's a bit anti-American," Tom Erdmann, a 33-year-old Berlin native working with a trade union, told CNBC as he looked at the Obama likeness and accompanying signs. "I'm not OK with it," he added, echoing the signs posted at the event asking demonstrators to refrain from "racism, rightist populism and anti-Americanism."

TWEET: "I guess it's a bit anti-American," said one anti-TTIP protestor when asked about this display.

Erdmann attended the demonstration because he is worried about private companies' intrusion into public services such as education, he said. Still, Erdmann added, he also understands why there may be a streak of antipathy to the U.S. for some at the march.

"Some people here are anti-American because it's easy — they're an easy enemy, especially right now with the election," Erdmann said.

The world has changed. Just over eight years ago, then-presidential candidate Obama received thunderous applause in front an estimated 200,000 in Berlin when he called for an era of global partnerships.

"Yes, there have been differences between America and Europe. No doubt, there will be differences in the future," Obama said during that 2008 speech. "But the burdens of global citizenship continue to bind us together. Partnership and cooperation among nations is not a choice; it is the one way, the only way, to protect our common security and advance our common humanity."

You cannot just say all Americans are bad, but I can understand when people hate big companies.
Berlin student

Demonstrators and organizers posed different theories about what had changed since then. Some pointed to disillusionment about Obama's interest in economic liberalism, and others suggested an increased awareness about the political strength of major corporations and rising wealth inequality. Germany — in Berlin, Hamburg, Leipzig and Frankfurt — had been one of the major sites of the Occupy movement in 2011.

Either way, the real enemies at Saturday's protests were not the U.S., Obama or even specific measures in TTIP and CETA. Instead, demonstrators were calling on their leaders to protect them from the threats of run-away capitalism, corporate avarice and an ultra-wealthy class that they say is above the law.

Homemade signs admonished those seeking "profits," and images of the U.S. dollar bill and Scrooge McDuck were stand-ins for greed and inequality. Nearly every demonstrator queried by CNBC pointed immediately to concerns about "big companies" garnering too much power and wealth if the trade deals were enacted.

"You cannot just say all Americans are bad, but I can understand when people hate big companies," Jonas, a 26-year-old Berlin student, said. Many like-minded demonstrators acknowledged they have friends and relatives who are employed by major multinational companies like Volkswagen, but they insisted that the benefits of a trade deal would go disproportionately to executives.

Many politicians on both sides of the Atlantic, Jonas argued, were really under the thumb of those large companies. "I think they get a lot of money from companies," he said when asked why he did not believe U.S. and German promises of well-distributed economic benefits from trade deals.

And it's that distribution that was ultimately the key point for many of Saturday's demonstrators. In the wake of Occupy and the best-selling "Capital in the Twenty-First Century" from French economist Thomas Piketty in 2013, many Germans are actively grappling with the political philosophy of growth.

Saturday's rallies, organizers said, were attempting to demonstrate a show of force in that debate: Many citizens do not automatically want their nation's economy to expand (it's an almost universally-accepted idea in modern economics that expanded trade will provide net economic expansion to both countries) but instead they care how those benefits are distributed.

"What's for sure [with trade deals] is there will be losers, as there have been losers from NAFTA and other trade deals," Maritta Strasser — a lead trade campaigner for the nongovernmental organization Campact, and a speaker at Saturday's reportedly 50,000-person rally in Frankfurt — told CNBC last month. "Even if, overall, the benefits would be better than the losses – how do we compensate them?"

The protests were timed to coincide with a Monday meeting of Germany's Social Democrats, who were expected to vote on whether to support CETA. German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel leads that party, and his group's decision could ultimately affect the future of all EU trade policy because of Germany's importance in the union.

For more about the specific arguments against TTIP and CETA, click here.

And see this analysis for the larger debate about free trade agreements.