In June 2013, EU member states unanimously asked the Commission to negotiate TTIP, a comprehensive trade and investment treaty with the US. Since the mid-1990s, several political initiatives have endeavoured to strengthen transatlantic relations (Schmucker and Braml 2007). Accordingly, TTIP was initially welcomed by a large majority of European national parliaments and the media alike. But soon after the official launch of the negotiations, a few civil society organisations started to raise multifaceted concerns over TTIP. Most concerns emerged from the TTIP negotiators’ decision to leave the European citizens uninformed about the negotiation agenda and interim outcomes.
Many observers were surprised that intense criticism of TTIP initially emerged in Germany. Germany’s economy is by far one of the most trade-intensive in the world and thus heavily dependent on open markets and on the fair and equitable treatment of exporters and foreign investors. However, in Germany (and Austria) a few environmentalist and anti-globalisation groups started to wage a resolute battle against TTIP through the Internet, primarily on social media. These groups frequently voiced far-fetched speculations about the scope and the adverse consequences of the agreement.
Campact, a professional campaign group that was initially funded (in 2004) by advocates of the Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions and Citizen’s Action (Attac), started and coordinated a strong protest movement against TTIP in Germany. Campact had previously engaged in multi-year campaigns against genetically modified organisms (GMOs), fracking and national provisions concerning the retention of personal data. Thus, TTIP provided an excellent complement to the organisation’s campaign portfolio. In autumn 2013, Campact forged an alliance that was primarily supported by agricultural organisations, environmental activists and civil rights campaign groups (FAZ 2015; TTIP Unfairhandelbar 2015).
The protest against TTIP was primarily focused on the Internet. The campaign groups prepared TTIP-related information notes that were spread via paid Google advertisements, Facebook and Twitter. In addition, an online petition demanding a halt to the TTIP negotiations was forcefully promoted via Google advertisements and member organisations’ websites and mailing lists. In May 2014, 715,000 signatures had been handed over to Martin Schulz, the German Social Democrat’s top candidate for the 2014 elections to the European Parliament.
The protest groups engaged heavily in well-coordinated anti-TTIP campaigning via social media, which resulted in a distinct asymmetry in the debate. In the period July to December 2014, anti-TTIP groups’ announcements in Germany amounted to 83 % of total online media reporting on average, rising to 93 % at peak times. Peak-time media reporting took place around the TTIP negotiation rounds. Of all TTIP-related postings in the German online media, 85 % were originally authored and spread by anti-TTIP groups (Bauer 2015a).
Anti-TTIP campaigning had a strong impact on German citizens’ views of TTIP. A Google Trends analysis conducted for the period July 2013 to February 2015 suggests that German (as well as Austrian) citizens’ search interest in TTIP was 25 times higher than that of US citizens, and 14 times higher than that of French citizens (Bauer 2015b). And according to a November 2014 Eurobarometer survey, it was in Germany that support for TTIP was the lowest and aversion to TTIP the highest (Eurobarometer 2014).
Over time, the negative feeling towards TTIP spilled over to other European countries. In December 2013, several European civil society organisations followed an invitation from the Seattle to Brussels Network to form a Europe-wide coalition against TTIP (Attac 2015). This summit was followed by the German protest alliance’s decision to begin coordinating the European protest movement Stop TTIP. Again, anti-TTIP communication was conducted primarily through the Internet.
An analysis of European online media shows that anti-TTIP groups strongly dominated the online media debate in Europe: 60 % of the online media coverage from June to November 2014 can be attributed to anti-TTIP groups. As far as the issues primarily addressed in the media are concerned, ISDS took by far the largest share in total online media coverage (roughly 40 %), followed by GMOs (13 %), transparency (10 %) and culture (10 %). Because of German protest groups’ intense campaign activities, online media coverage of ISDS in Germany was roughly four times higher than in the US and France, and almost six times higher than in the UK (Bauer 2014). After the Commission refused to grant the Stop TTIP movement the status of a European Citizens’ Initiative (European Commission 2014c), the movement launched an EU-wide online petition to stop TTIP negotiations. By March 2015, the petition had received roughly 1.6 million signatures (Stop TTIP 2015).