Chlorinated chickens and hormone beef - this is what comes to mind when many Europeans hear the words Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership (TTIP). As negotiations continue between the European Union and the United States to lower trade barriers,hundreds of associations are mobilized all over Europe to prevent their conclusion. But who are these new actors in the EU political arena, and what amount of influence do they really yield ?
It was Friday night in Paris, but the windowless Cacquot amphitheater was still bursting with visitors looking for a free seat. Students, workers or retirees, they had all come to hear a panel of experts debate and answer questions of the developing trade agreement between the EU and the US.
Forty minutes into the event, Frédéric Viale, an activist from the alter-globalist organization ATTAC, started to discuss the power of multinationals in the TTIP negotiations, deploring the influence of the Brussels' "lobbies" on the proceedings.
His neighbor on the experts panel was no other than Patrick Messerlin, a renowned French economist who had been verbally sparring with Viale for most of the night.
“You don't think you are a lobby ?” he said once the activist was done speaking. “You're a lobby, I am a lobby, the only difference with the ones in Brussels is money !”
Avaaz and the bees : the rise of new actors in EU politics ?
After the publication of a concerning report by the European Food Safety Authority in 2013, the activist platform Avaaz set out to save the bees from their very own black wolf : neonicotinoids (also known under the campaign nickname "neonics").
Before the launch of the campaign, most European had never heard of the Monsanto chemical, but in just over a few weeks of Avaaz campaigning, it was widely blamed for decimating the global bees population. The petition racked up over a million of electronic signatures on the Avaaz platform, as well as hundreds of thousands of likes on Facebook and 54,000 retweets on Twitter.
While the neonicotinoids ban was being discussed in the European Parliament, Avaaz activists had installed a giant bee balloon outside the building. They had also stepped up their communication, using terms such as “Judgment day” and “Armageddon” when talking to EU media and to their online community of supporters.
This was maybe a first in terms of online mobilization of the civil society on such scale, and these efforts paid up in kind. By the end of April 2013, and despite stern opposition from leading member states such as Germany and the UK, fifteen EU countries decided to implement a two-year ban on all pesticides containing the dangerous chemical.
Today, the civil society is raising its voice, and this time it is against TTIP.
While business lobbies and the EU commission have remained prevalent voices in traditional media and general forums, a Germany-based study of the European Centre for International Political Economy (ECIPE) has found that the groups lobbying against the trade agreement thoroughly dominate the TTIP discussion on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.
"[EU] negotiators were somewhat surprised by the massive opposition of a few civil society organizations and their capacity to organize across borders," said Matthias Bauer, the researcher in charge of the ECIPE study.
Yet these associations are much more than a handful of angry citizens sitting in front of their computers in different corners of Europe. They are in many aspects as organized as the business lobbies they like to criticize.
"The success of anti-TTIP groups in determining the debate in the online media can be attributed to campaigning groups like 38degrees and Campact that have worked on many issues that are now part of TTIP before TTIP was even announced," said Bauer. "For these campaign 'companies’ business models', TTIP provides an ideal breeding ground to increase brand awareness and funding, respectively."
As underlined by Bauer's study, the aspects of TTIP that are debated in most business and EU circles are not those promoted on social networks.
"Unfortunately, anti-TTIP groups keep on spreading speculations and risks that are completely irrelevant and frequently taken out of the blue," said the ECIPE researcher. "Due to Campact’s efforts, we have arrived at a stage where German citizen’s interest in TTIP is 25 times higher than in the US and roughly 15 times higher than in France. The sad thing is, however, that most Citizens are simply misinformed, e.g. by paid-for Google advertisements set up by anti-TTIP groups."
The reaction of the EU Commission to these campaigns is a testimony to their impact on the European population, at a time at which the European Union can scarcely afford bad publicity.
In the last year alone, the EU institution has made its proceedings much more transparent with the publication of several negotiations documents (most trade agreements at state and regional levels are kept on wrap until all details are finalized between the partners).
More importantly, the EU has set its sights on social networks for "positive" communication on the TTIP. Over a year ago, they opened a specific account for the EU TTIP negotiation team, and keep producing videos and pamphlets on the potential benefits of the agreements (most recently - the top 10 myths about TTIP).Yet so far they have failed to regain much ground.
"Compared to these groups, the capacity of official bureaucracies and the process of consensus-building of TTIP-supportive political parties is, to say the least, sluggish," said Bauer, who believes they lack the determination of their opponents.
EU Commissioner for Trade Cecilia Malmström also believes that more outreach will help EU citizens better understand the ongoing negotiations.
"There is no doubt that the debate continues but our initiatives are starting to bear fruit, particularly on transparency," said the EU Commissioner at a TTIP workshop last March. "(...) I will certainly continue to listen and discuss TTIP with anyone who wishes, here in Brussels and as I visit Member States. And I urge all those who believe this deal matters to do the same especially national ministers and MEPs, but also business, think tanks and civil society. Having information online helps. But myths live on in people's heads long after they have been disproved."
Meanwhile, the civil society keeps becoming more organized and more vocal, as exemplified by the monster-coalition Stop TTIP .
In its mere year of existence, the activist association has managed to get over 1.6 million European citizens to sign its online petition, and is currently suing the EU Commission for rejecting the group's citizen initiative to block its trade agreements with the US. But who can we find among the 370+ members of its associations ?
Two-million strong to stop TTIP
The least that can be said is that Stop TTIP does not discriminate when it comes to accepting new members. Civil associations, think tanks, citizen groups, trade unions or political organizations, they all specialize in very different topics, from religious projects to transparency research.
Yet the impressive list of coalition members can be at times quite a game of mirrors. Some associations mentioned on the list are themselves national coalitions against the Transatlantic Treaty whose members are also included in the Stop TTIP membership (e.g. TTIP Unfairhandelbar, a German coalition of 50+ associations, most of them also members of STOP TTIP). It is also worth noting that over a third of the organizations analyzed in this investigation had not recently been active on the problematic.
Meanwhile, the TTIP battle is still being fought every day on social media. On April Fools' day earlier this year, the Green political family in the European Parliament (@GreensEP) took yet another shot with a TTIP prank at the expense of former EU Council President Jean-Claude Juncker.
“This is a landmark decision for EU democracy,” the former EU leader was reported to say in the fake press release connected to the tweet. “The people have spoken, and they have clearly said they do not want any kind of TTIP, no matter how we try to spin it. We want to be a Commission that listens to its citizens.”
Note : unless specified otherwise, most of the numbers discussed in this article are the result of a data investigation project led by the author on the basis of two main data sources : the raw numbers of the ECIPE study on online media, and a compilation of data based on the 370+ members list of the Stop TTIP coalition (the number is constantly growing).