• World

New Trade Deal May Be Doomed by Populism and Suspicion on Both Sides of the Atlantic

4 minute read

The latest round of talks on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) provoked angry protests in Europe, particularly in Germany–and almost total indifference in the U.S. That raises the question of why it’s being negotiated in the first place. There is already plenty of trade flowing in both directions across the Atlantic. E.U. investment in the U.S. is about eight times the amount of E.U. investment in India and China combined, and U.S. investment in the E.U. is three times higher than U.S. investment in all of Asia. TTIP will not be the next major trade deal–and there are several reasons why.

Proponents of TTIP point out that it would be the biggest bilateral trade deal ever negotiated, according to the European Commission, covering countries that generate 45% of global GDP. It’s a project designed to jump-start economic growth and create jobs in Europe and the U.S. by reducing or eliminating barriers to trade and foreign investment. Advocates argue that removing obstacles would lower costs, which can make companies more profitable and give them incentives to hire more workers. Both the U.S. and E.U. economies could use the boost.

Yet antitrade sentiment is rising on both sides of the Atlantic. In the U.S., presidential candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have demonstrated that opposition to trade deals can appeal to voters in both parties. Trump claims that weak-kneed U.S. trade negotiators have made bad deals in recent years, costing the country jobs and growth. Sanders claims that the dealmakers know exactly what they’re doing–they’re elites making deals with other elites to benefit elites. But Trump and Sanders agree that the big loser is the American worker.

The fear across the Atlantic is that TTIP is a Trojan horse that would enable powerful U.S. corporations to bully European governments into eroding safety and environmental standards across the union. The intense secrecy surrounding the negotiations only feeds that fear. The environmental group Greenpeace released nearly 250 pages of leaked classified documents on May 2 that it says provide insight on the current state of closed-door TTIP negotiations. European critics of the deal say the documents show that it would replace the E.U.’s “precautionary principle”–which can put the onus on manufacturers of a product to prove it’s not dangerous–with a more corporate-friendly U.S. standard. They also charge that the deal would allow U.S. companies to sue European governments in international courts, depriving European lawmakers and courts of their say.

Supporters of the deal counter that the bargaining positions of the two sides shouldn’t be confused with final terms, that secrecy is essential to ensure that pressures from interest groups don’t make negotiations impossible and that more jobs would be created by learning to manage risks than by trying to eliminate them altogether. Beyond the hurdles the deal will face in the U.S., the final text must be approved in Europe by all 28 E.U. governments and the European Parliament.

Progress for the TTIP has also been limited by recognition that voters in Britain will decide on June 23 whether their country should remain a member of the E.U. A vote for Brexit would complicate matters considerably by removing the country most likely to help bridge gaps in negotiations.

This isn’t the end of all trade deals. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an already negotiated agreement that enhances U.S. commercial ties with allies on both sides of the Pacific, will probably earn congressional approval and the President’s signature at the end of this year. But TTIP is on a slow boat to nowhere. Surveys from YouGov, a polling firm, show that support for the agreement in Germany, Europe’s economic engine room, has fallen from 55% in 2014 to 17% today. Support in the U.S. fell from 53% to 18% over the same period. On May 3 French President François Hollande said “At this stage [of talks], France says no.”

Antitrade fury has already forced Hillary Clinton to back off from support for TPP. In the unlikely event that Trump is elected, it’s hard to imagine any government will want to invest political capital in trying to bargain with him on trade, given his hard-line comments on the campaign trail. U.S.-European relations have been fraying and are in desperate need of a boost, but TTIP won’t help anytime soon.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com