Wolfsburg, in Germany’s industrial heartland, is a symbol of the country’s thriving manufacturing sector and international competitiveness. Founded in the 1930s as a planned community for German autoworkers, the city has become the country’s richest per capita. It hosts Volkswagen’s headquarters and the world’s largest auto plant and is the poster child for the country’s center-left case for an open, trade-based economy. It was a fitting site for the Social Democratic Party (SPD) to hammer out its positions this September in preparation for Germany’s 2017 federal elections.
One of the most contentious issues at the SPD’s convention was the party’s stance on the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) between the European Union and Canada, negotiations for which concluded in 2014. It took a raucous intraparty battle and a political gambit by Sigmar Gabriel—the SPD leader, economic minister, vice chancellor, and likely challenger to Chancellor Angela Merkel in the 2017 elections—to push support for the pact into the SPD’s platform.
The CETA vote matters because some Europeans, particularly in Austria, France, and Germany, regard the controversy around the agreement as a dry run for a much larger clash over the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the mammoth free trade agreement between the United States and the EU. The fates of CETA and TTIP are intertwined, and like the CETA, TTIP, which is still being negotiated, is not out of the woods.
As France and Germany prepare for major elections, opposition to TTIP has become a cause célèbre among Europe’s right-wing populists, farmers, environmentalists, antiglobalization activists, and some trade unions (particularly in the service sector). Together with some broader factors conspiring against TTIP’s completion, this opposition has made the pact’s prospects—and those of trade negotiations more generally—seem grim. The era of the big trade deal is certainly in hibernation. The question now is whether it is dead altogether.