Around a quarter of a million people went onto the streets in Germany in September 2016 to demonstrate against free trade agreements. Several national newspapers reported on this with headlines such as “Tens of thousands protest against TTIP and CETA” and then focused to a large extent on the question of who had estimated how many participants. But I don’t want to be distracted from the real question by the exact numbers. It is more critical for me to clarify how I stand on free trade agreements and to what extent I can understand the SPD’s decision to support them in principle to avoid endangering the business community’s trust in politics. Free trade agreements are complex, and I am not an expert on them. The SPD is based on the fundamental values of freedom, justice, and solidarity. These are important to me as well, but will these values be strengthened for me by the planned free trade agreements?
PRO ARGUMENT WITH ONE VARIABLE AND ONE WINNER. There are many arguments in favor of free trade agreements. As an example, here is a pro-argument by Friedrich Merz (CDU): “[…] The question is only who will set the rules in the future. Will we Europeans set the rules together with the Americans, or will the rules be rewritten in Asia, for example. The Americans will be there in any case. The Europeans are in danger of slipping into a watching role if they avoid this process.” (5/4/2016, DLF, translated by the author). As I understand it, Merz assumes that there can only be one winner. So he ignores the possibility of a plural, fraternal, and social society in which there might be a multitude of winners. Hearing these arguments from the head of the supervisory board of Blackrock Germany is not surprising, but the fact that this point of view is also held by the SPD is quite astonishing.
MONEY DISTRACTS FROM THE ESSENTIALS. It seems to me that large companies have a lot of interest in free trade agreements. Of course, the SPD can argue that an employee also needs an employer. However, this development will be at the expense of the citizen’s freedom, which I do not see being strengthened by free trade agreements. While freedom and diversity are very difficult to measure, it is incredibly easy for the economy to quantify the effects in monetary terms. When studies show that the purchasing power of individuals increases on average, this can be interpreted in different ways. – I’ll leave aside the fact that this extrapolation is probably wrong. I can’t imagine large corporations simply passing on additional profits to customers. After all, electricity meters were still necessary despite the introduction of nuclear power. – But perhaps the extrapolation is correct, in which case two interpretations come to my mind:
- The individual has more money in his wallet and can actually realize his wishes better and thus have a more fulfilled life.
- The bottom line is that nothing changes. Only the things that have not been taken into account so far become economically visible (e.g.: Parents work and pay for childcare instead of caring for the children themselves; communication with friends is done by social media rather than face-to-face; people take out private supplementary insurance instead of trusting society).
The former assumes that the person who has more is willing to give away, which, as I said, I doubt. Whether the latter is true cannot be quantified. If it does matter, there is a danger of losing the other, as Byung-Chul Han critically observes in our time. In this case, money alone is used as a singular benchmark.
NOT EVERYONE CAN WIN. The resulting struggle of everyone against everyone is dangerous. In order to look for ways out, I would like to formulate in the style of a slogan of the anti-war movement “Imagine, there is war and nobody goes”: Imagine there’s more money and no one wants it. In our current economic system, it is not so easy to imagine not desiring more money, not to mention abandoning it altogether. Would free trade agreements still make sense at all in that case? And where does money appear in the core values? Is it only so dominant because we have lost touch with the ground and otherwise have no metric for deciding what to do? Especially in times when uncertainty is growing for some, it is important to create certainty again with a clear affirmation of core values. This can sustainably take away people’s fear again.
TO ACT FREELY INCREASES MY SATISFACTION
In itself, the content and form of a free trade agreement may well be reasonable and correct, but it will also continue to strengthen the already powerful companies. For me as a common citizen, there is not necessarily any added value, especially in terms of core values. An example from my own experience: For some time now, I have canceled my customer account with a large Internet retailer and have no regrets. In the beginning, I thought it was pure idealism, that I was missing something, and that I would now have to pay higher prices. But today, I am convinced that at the end of the year I save money and gain freedom in my actions. I now buy mostly on the spot the products I am satisfied with, instead of spending hours reading customer reviews, getting subtle suggestions, only to end up buying the product with unnecessary extra features out of some uncertainty after all. Furthermore, by trusting an experienced retailer, I have usually completed the purchase within a short, pleasant dialog.
STANDARDIZATION IS NOT IN THE FOCUS OF LARGE CORPORATIONS. Of course, I’m also happy when I can choose freely between products from different manufacturers and they still work well together. Unfortunately, large corporations have not had much incentive to meet this customer demand through standardization. For example, even the telecommunications industry, which is dependent on standards for data exchange, has not managed to agree on a uniform plug for chargers for a long time. It was only through political pressure at the European level that the industry was able to agree on a standard. Is there a lack of listening to citizens on the side of big corporations? What would have happened if a quarter of a million had voiced their opinion at large corporations in September 2016 instead of on the streets by canceling their accounts? When it comes to enforcing standards, I thank politicians for their hard work and clear direction. However, I would ask that they do not secretly draw up unmanageable agreements with the cooperation of large corporations, whose objectives are no longer comprehensible to the individual. I see a loss of diversity through the large overall packages and they seem to me to strengthen the monopolization, market dominance, and winner-takes-it-all mentality of large corporations.