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‘The Politicisation Game’: Strategic Interactions in the Contention Over TTIP in Germany

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As the third-largest exporting country in the world, Germany is a clear beneficiary and proponent of free trade. Few, therefore, expected the magnitude of contention that emerged within Germany during the negotiations between the EU and the United States for a transatlantic trade deal (TTIP). This paper explores the politicisation process of TTIP within the context of the broader transformations of German politics including not only the entry of new issues and new players in the electoral and protest arenas but also the increased hybridisation of forms of protest. Theoretically, we draw on the ‘Players and Arenas’ framework to put forward a sequential, strategic interactionist approach to the unfolding process of politicisation, in which various types of players face dilemmas when interacting with each other over time. Applying this analytical framework to the politicisation of TTIP in Germany, we reveal previously overlooked players, interactions and dilemmas, while opening up multiple opportunities for empirical analysis of cases beyond this area. We show how the politicisation of TTIP brought about an important intensification of relations between Germany’s protest and electoral arenas, and confronted all players involved with choices with long-lasting consequences for both mobilisation and coalition building dynamics.
‘The Politicisation Game’: Strategic Interactions in the Contention over TTIP in
Germany
Niels Gheyle*, Université catholique de Louvain (UCLouvain), Niels.Gheyle@uclouvain.be
Julia Rone, University of Cambridge, Julia.Rone@eui.eu
* corresponding author
This is the post-print (peer-reviewed and accepted for publication) manuscript. There may be
minor differences with the published manuscript. The Version of Record of this manuscript
has been published and is available in German Politics, 6 March 2022,
https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09644008.2022.2042517
Abstract
As the third-largest exporting country in the world, Germany is a clear beneficiary and
proponent of free trade. Few therefore expected the magnitude of contention that emerged
within Germany during the negotiations between the EU and the United States for a
transatlantic trade deal (TTIP). This paper explores the politicisation process of TTIP within
the context of the broader transformations of German politics including not only the entry of
new issues and new players in the electoral and protest arena but also the increased
hybridisation of forms of protest. Theoretically, we draw on the ‘Players and Arenas’
framework to put forward a sequential, strategic interactionist approach to the unfolding
process of politicisation, in which various types of players face dilemmas when interacting
with each other over time. Applying this analytical framework to the politicisation of TTIP in
Germany, we reveal previously overlooked players, interactions and dilemmas, while opening
up multiple opportunities for empirical analysis of cases beyond this area.We show how the
politicisation of TTIP brought about an important intensification of relations between
Germany’s protest and electoral arena, and confronted all players involved with choices with
long-lasting consequences for both mobilisation and coalition building dynamics.
INTRODUCTION
Against the background of an increasing contentiousness and polarisation around economic
globalisation issues, trade policy remains a relatively overlooked topic when compared to
issues such as immigration or European integration (cfr. Kriesi et al. 2008). Especially in
Germany, a country often described as Exportweltmeister and a clear beneficiary of
international trade, trade policy has hardly been a topic of scholarly attention. Yet in an
unexpected and unprecedented turn of events, the 2013-2016 period saw Germany stand out
as the European country with the highest levels of politicisation surrounding the Transatlantic
Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP): negotiations between the EU and the US that would
at the time have led to the largest trade deal in history. In order to study the ‘new contentious
politics’ in Germany (see Hutter and Weisskircher 2022 in this special issue), and to better
understand not only a newly salient issue but also the structural changes in the organisational
landscape of interest mobilisation, it is therefore instructive to focus on the politicisation of
TTIP in Germany.
‘Politicisation’ is commonly understood as an expansion of the scope of conflict within the
political system, characterised by the visibility, intensity, and polarisation of public debates
(De Wilde, Schmidtke, and Leupold 2016; Hutter, Grande, and Kriesi 2016). In the case of
TTIP, the root of this politicisation lay in the far-reaching nature of contemporary trade
agreements, which go largely beyond traditional tariff concessions, and increasingly focus on
non-trade issues (such as labor and environmental commitments) and provisions on how to
better align diverging practices, standards and regulations that may equally hinder cross-
border trade (De Ville and Siles-Brügge 2015; Laursen and Roederer-Rynning 2017).
Given Germany’s status as an export nation and a clear beneficiary of TTIP (Felbermayr
2016), as well as the government’s longstanding support for enhanced transatlantic
integration, it was expected to be one of the key drivers of the deal. Yet by 2015, more than
half of the German population opposed TTIP (Bertelsmann Foundation 2016). Big German
cities were swept by mass protests, with a peak in October 2015 of more than 200,000
protesters in Berlin the country’s biggest rally since the protests against the Iraq war (cfr.
Daphi et al. 2021). NGOs, trade unions, small and medium-sized enterprises, farmers,
religious organisations, journalists, cultural institutes and local municipalities joined forces
and sided with German left-wing politicians to abandon TTIP – either completely, or at least
in its current form. Business associations and (center-)right parties, on the other hand,
vehemently looked to dispel the claims put forward by anti-TTIP actors, trying to shift public
opinion into a more favorable stance. Yet by the summer of 2016, sustained politicisation led
then-Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel (SPD) to declare TTIP ‘dead in the water’ (EurActiv
2016).
The question of the high levels of contestation and politicisation of a trade agreement that was
expected to be perceived as widely beneficial has since triggered widespread scholarly
attention (cfr. Section 2). Yet if most analyses on German politics so far have focused on
party politics (Hutter and Weisskircher 2022), analyses of TTIP’s politicisation have erred on
the opposite side over privileging the role of civil society. Current explanations of the
politicisation of TTIP follow a remarkably similar overarching pattern: politicisation is
explained by the actions of CSOs that successfully mobilised public opinion about a far-
reaching trade deal, thus kick-starting a bandwagon on which various actors jumped, leading
to the eventually massive politicisation (Chan and Crawford 2017; cfr. Section 2). These
explanations therefore imply two premises: the politicisation of TTIP was about (i) the
(re)insertion of visible conflict on trade topics, (ii) propelled by civil society organisations.
We argue, however, that both premises do not acknowledge enough the complexity,
difficulty, and equifinality through which politicisation unfolds. Trade contestation and
mobilisation by civil society actors take place on a frequent basis, yet not every agreement
becomes the object of public debate to the extent seen with TTIP in Germany. Focusing only
on civil society mobilisation hence blurs the fact that a multitude of actors are required to
(want to) focus on a certain topic, making politicisation not automatic, nor easily attained, nor
the logical and inevitable result of well-executed political mobilisation. Moreover,
explanations restricting politicisation to the outcome of visible conflict overlook the strategic
interactions and the multiple dilemmas that different players face before engaging in visible
conflict. In this paper, we therefore build on the ‘Players and Arenas’ framework that is
gaining popularity in social movement studies (Jasper and Duyvdenak 2015) and focus on the
unfolding process of politicisation, rather than only looking at its end-product. In this way, we
give justice to and understand better the considerable organisational hybridisation that made
the politicisation of TTIP possible.
The added value of this contribution is threefold. First, building on the Players and Arenas
literature, we bridge social movement and politicisation studies to propose a novel analytical
framework to analyse and explain politicisation phenomena, taking into account the strategic
interactions between different players. Secondly, it is an empirical contribution, in that we
provide a reassessment and a fresh look on the politicisation of trade as a new issue that draws
novel types of political actors or helps forge alliances between better known ones in Germany.
Thirdly, our contribution enters in dialogue with other papers exploring the dynamic interplay
between the protest and party arenas in Germany that have increasingly been explored
together and in relation to each other (Borbáth and Hutter 2020, 6; Hutter, Kriesi, and
Lorenzini 2019).
ANALYTICAL FRAMEWORK
In the contentious decade following the 2008 economic crisis, social movements departed
from the post-materialist paradigm of earlier decades and increasingly organised around
explicitly economic issues, thus necessitating to bring capitalism and political economy back
in protest analysis (della Porta 2015). While in many European countries, the politicisation of
economic issues was dominated by the topic of austerity, in Germany, trade politics emerged
as a key issue and became politicised more than in any other European country (Gheyle 2019;
Rone 2020). Still, the politicisation of TTIP in Germany cannot be explained with social
movement activism alone since numerous studies have revealed the key role also of political
parties, trade unions, business organisations and numerous other types of actors (ibid). In this
section, we bridge approaches from social movement studies and politicisation studies to put
forward an analytical framework that we then apply to the important empirical case of
politicisation of trade in Germany.
Explaining the Politicisation of TTIP
According to the seminal definition by De Wilde (2011), politicisation in the EU context
involves ‘an increase in polarisation of opinions, interests or values and the extent to which
they are publicly advanced towards the process of policy formulation within the EU’ (566).
Many scholars hence stress the public nature of this phenomenon: it entails an expansion of
the scope of conflict in the political system, characterised by an increasing number of actors
(beside executives) involved in a visible and polarised public debate (Statham and Trenz
2015; De Wilde, Leupold, and Schmidtke 2016; Hutter, Grande, and Kriesi 2016). This
expansion of actors involved makes politicisation distinct from social movement
mobilisations, narrowly speaking, which can be seen as attempts to politicise something or as
building blocks of possible politicisation.
Existing studies aiming to explain the unexpectedly large politicisation of TTIP (in Germany)
commonly invoke three complementary explanatory factors: authority transfers, the power of
civil society, and favorable political opportunity structures. A first emphasis is on the
(expected) authority increase related to TTIP, referring to the far-reaching content of this new
type of trade agreement (Laursen and Roederer-Rynning 2017; De Ville and Siles-Brügge
2015). Because of its comprehensive character, TTIP potentially affected many areas of
regulation (including food, labour, and environmental standards) and possibly democratic
procedures, hence triggering the attention of a multitude of civil society groups, parties, and
parliaments (Young 2016; De Bièvre and Poletti 2017).
Secondly, many studies subsequently focus on the actions of civil society groups, who were
credited with successfully reaching out to millions of ordinary citizens through a well-
organised media campaign that managed to affect public debate in Germany and a number of
other European countries (De Ville and Siles-Brügge 2015; Eliasson and Garcia-Duran 2018;
Oleart 2019). German civil society organisations, in particular, were successful in kick-
starting the politicisation of TTIP in Germany helped by their ‘expert “mesomobilisation” link
with a transnational advocacy network, the prior availability of domestic alliances, and an
inclusive framing approach in order to establish a diverse coalition’ (Gheyle 2020).
Third, a number of authors also emphasise the favorable opportunity structure facilitating
mobilisation and the resonance of anti-TTIP messages. Anti-TTIP mobilisation in Germany
came on top of the highly successful protests against the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade
Agreement (ACTA) the first trade agreement to be rejected by the European Parliament
after its powers were expanded by the Lisbon Treaty (Rone 2020). Also, much of the public
knowledge on the highly controversial investor-state dispute mechanism included in TTIP
was influenced by an exemplary case (Vattenfall) in 2014-15, involving a company exploiting
nuclear power plants suing the state for its phaseout of nuclear power (Chan and Crawford
2017). Others also point towards the fact that the United States were the main negotiating
partner, with CSOs evoking stereotypical images of an unbridled US capitalism with less
attention for privacy, food hygiene, or environmental considerations (Buonanno 2017; Duina
2019).
We argue, however, that this threefold narrative rests on two premises that merit closer
attention. First, there is a tendency to focus predominantly on the actions of civil society
organisations: how they engage in frame elaboration, stage protests, and build coalitions
(McAdam and Boudet 2012). While these types of actors are important, this focus strongly
reduces complexity, since it assumes NGOs and movements simply need to play their cards
well to trigger visibility, which subsequently pulls different actors on the bandwagon. This
neglects the key role of strategic interaction between CSOs that might have very different
preferences when it comes to means and goals, and between CSOs and other players like trade
unions, business associations, journalists, experts and academics, or politicians, who all have
their own agenda, and their own incentives to (de)politicise. The same CSO actions can
therefore play out very differently in different national contexts and times, depending on the
particular relationships and interactions that unfold.
Secondly, the focus in the existing literature has predominantly been on reinserting visible
conflict in a debate. While undoubtedly a key aspect of any politicising process, publicly
inserting conflict is not the only action that underpins an unfolding politicisation process.
Sometimes it might be necessary, for example, to find a compromise between two important
groups before you take to the streets and make claims visible. Coalition-building among
heterogeneous actors is never self-evident and involves serious political work and boundary
spanning that if successful can have long-lasting results (see Stjepandić et al. in this special
issue). Sometimes compromises preemptively reduce the potential for further conflict.
Likewise, there are opponents who would rather downplay the conflict potential of an issue,
actively trying to depoliticise an issue, which may hinder further conflict expansion. We
therefore need to explore more substantially the strategic interactions (and possible dilemmas)
between actors taking place to comprehend how we arrive at an expansion of the scope of
conflict, or how conflict in fact failed to materialise.
Players, Arenas, and Strategic Interactions
Ultimately, in this paper we aim to complement existing analyses on the politicisation of TTIP
in Germany with a focus on the politicisation process, which is more attentive to how
broadly-carried public debates unfold. We do so by drawing on the rich literature on strategic
interactionism in social movement studies (Jasper 2006; Jasper and Duyvendak 2015) that has
received a new impetus in the last decade. There are several key premises of the strategic
interactionist approach that make it a particularly suitable framework for analysing the
process of politicisation of TTIP in Germany, as they cater to the deficits of the product
approach sketched above.
First, strategic interactionism focuses on agency as a relational phenomenon and explores how
different players “engage in a series of actions in response to others, anticipating their
reactions in turn” (Jasper 2006, 6). Second, in interacting with others, players often follow
pre-established habits and traditions. Yet sometimes they also face strategic dilemmas or
implicit trade-offs with consequences that are difficult to predict (Jasper 2006). Third, few
strategic interactions take place between two players only, often with additional players and
bystanders involved in one way or another. Fourth, because every interaction may constrain
(or open up) possible further moves by other players, the exact timing and pace of interactions
becomes of central importance (Jabola-Carolus et al. 2020). Fifth, the players and arenas
framework recently has also focused on outcomes and the ways in which strategic interactions
might lead to gains or losses (Jasper et al. 2022)
Such an interactionist and sequential approach hence leaves room for agency and decision
making, as well as for contingency, meaning that social events cannot be deduced from
culture or social structures, but depend on the specific interactions that take place – and could
have been different (McCall and Becker 1990). By giving “equal and symmetric weight to
protestors and to the other players who they engage” (Jasper 2006, 9) and by introducing
strategic dilemmas various players face, it allows us to move beyond both party- and social
movement-centrism and conflict as the main elements of an explanation.
The “Players and Arenas” framework translates these premises to an analytical model. Players
“engage in strategic action with some goal in mind” (Jasper 2015, 10). They can be simple
players (individuals) or compound players (teams of individuals): “Compound players range
from loose, informal groups to formal organisations all the way up to nations tentatively or
seemingly united behind some purpose” (ibid). Players interact with each other in different
arenas, defined as bundles of “rules and resources that allow or encourage certain kinds of
interactions to proceed, with something at stake” (ibid, 14). Furthermore, “some arenas
strictly demarcate who the players are; others are more open. They need not be legal or
formal, operating instead according to customs and habits'' (Jasper 2006, 140). Crucially for
our analysis of TTIP in Germany, players can make moves across many different arenas – in
the press, in national parliaments, on the streets, and on the corridors of Brussels’ institutions.
Indeed, “few strategic conflicts unfold in only one arena” (ibid, 140) and players generally
tend to switch to arenas where they have an advantage.
There are three strategic dilemmas outlined by Jasper (2006) that are relevant for our purposes
of studying the process of politicisation of TTIP: the Titan’s Hubris dilemma underscores the
complacency of strong players with rich resources who let down their guard due to their very
strength. Secondly, the Extension Dilemma implies the trade-off between building a broader
alliance and losing focus of key principles and goals. Thirdly, the Basket Dilemma relates to
the choice between engaging opponents in a number of arenas or keeping the conflict in as
few arenas as possible. We add a fourth dilemma not specified in Jasper’s work, which we
call the Pleaser Dilemma the choice between showing responsiveness to specific
constituencies and being responsible to governing partners; in a sense: to whose wishes do
you cater?1
The decisions players made with regard to each of these four dilemmas represented key points
in the politicisation of TTIP as a new economic issue in Germany and led to reconfigurations
of forces, facilitating or constraining further action. Hence, the ultimate outcome of
politicisation was not determined by a list of conditions, but depended on the unfolding game
different players played and their strategic choices in key moments.
“TTIP NEIN DANKE!”: THE POLITICISATION OF TTIP IN GERMANY
We explore the strategic interactions involved in the politicisation of TTIP in chronological
order focusing on the interactions that proved decisive for moving forward the politicisation
process. Our analysis is based on the triangulation of structured qualitative interviews, in-
depth qualitative content analysis of both print and video media materials, online blogs and
websites, as well as primary documents such as declarations by cities and municipalities, all
of which were conducted in two large-scale studies of the politicisation of TTIP (Gheyle
2019; Rone 2020). We conducted the analysis with a specific focus on how players deal with
strategic dilemmas when entering in conflict and cooperation with other players. In order to
make the presentation of interactions more orderly, we have divided the process of
politicisation in three parts: the initial period of setting the game and clarifying strategies and
positions, the middle period of intensifying politicisation involving the expansion of both
players and arenas, and finally, the end game when all major players had made their key
moves and even internal conflicts started appearing.
Period One: Setting the Board (2013-2014)
German Government and Social Partners: The Titan’s Hubris or Quiet Politics as usual? At
the outset of negotiations, the focus was primarily on traditional players advocating TTIP. In
Germany’s neocorporatist model of economic decision-making, the government cooperates
closely with the social partners: the peak business associations BDI (the Federation of
German Industries) and the DIHK (German Chambers of Commerce and Industry), and the
main trade union association Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund (DGB). Continuing traditional
support of trade agreements for both economic and geopolitical reasons, these three partners
This dilemma was first outlined by Mair (2014) to describe the choice between responsiveness and
responsibility political parties face in contemporary multilevel government. Drawing inspiration from
his analysis, we use a broad interpretation of this dilemma, showing how it is relevant also for other
players such as trade unions.
(informally) cooperated in supporting TTIP. The 2013 government declaration (made up of
CDU and SPD) identified TTIP as a key project in deepening transatlantic relations, with the
goal of eliminating existing barriers to trade and investment as much as possible.
Peak business organisations were not only in favor of the government’s stance, but also
cooperated early on to make their position clear. Together with the BDA (Germans’ Employer
Association), the BDI and DIHK came to a joint position calling TTIP an “opportunity for
employment and the economy” (BDI 2014). As argued by Dalton (2007, p. 8), this joining of
efforts by the three large associations is not usual, yet when they unite “their lobbying impact
is difficult for policy makers to resist like three charging elephants”. The DGB was not
overly enthusiastic about TTIP, but neither principally opposed. They saw several
possibilities, for example in pushing for the ratification of several ILO core labor standards in
the US, or job creation, but nevertheless concluded that “the agreement does not constitute an
effective remedy against the crises in the Euro area” (DGB 2013).
These cooperative early moves tilt the game in favor of TTIP advocates, given the
(discursive) support of these three powerful actors, especially since (foreign) economic
decision-making procedures are rather isolated from other societal groups (Chan and
Crawford 2017). To a certain extent, we can see a case of The Titan’s Hubris Dilemma play
out at this early stage – once they reached an agreement, the players involved were so strong
they did not feel compelled to create a large public campaign advocating TTIP. It was
precisely their strength that created a sense of complacency that was soon to be challenged.
But it was not only hubris that can explain their lack of ambition to reach out to the public.
BDI and DIHK, for example, kept within the traditional channels of lobbying and inter-
sectoral negotiations because this “quiet politics” approach (Culpepper 2011) had traditionally
worked well for them. These major players had little to gain from entering in other arenas and
discussing the agreement publicly since this could have had unpredictable consequences.
Approaching the Basket dilemma by placing all their efforts in the arenas of the intersectoral
negotiations and lobbying made full sense on the basis of previous experience.
The (non-)dilemma to expand: Activists and NGO Mobilisation. One important counter-
move was being prepared by a small group of activists who had been following (and
campaigning on) EU trade policy much longer than TTIP. Activists from PowerShift (an
NGO working on energy and climate), Corporate Europe Observatory (a Brussels-based NGO
with a strong connection to Germany), and Campact (a multi-issue organisation that works
through internet-based advocacy) were key in identifying TTIP as a possible campaign target,
and in conducting the first meetings on how to proceed. They succeeded in bringing together
about 20 NGOs in April 2013 two months before the actual negotiations officially kicked
off. Several of the NGOs present here were all members of the transnational organisation
“Seattle 2 Brussels Network” which had followed EU trade policy since the early 2000s.
Overall, these were mainly environmental, development, and alter-globalisation groups, many
of which had other particular expertise than EU trade policy, such as on GMOs, fracking, or
pesticides.
Since that first meeting, there was a joint recognition by all participant NGOs that something
big was coming, and that this affected all of their core businesses in a crucial way
(Werdermann, 2014). The cooperation that followed was therefore extremely intense and
focused: specific staff hiring to coordinate meetings and activities, education of campaigners,
joint production of position papers, a broad and inclusive master framing towards TTIP
(corporations vs. democracy), using each other’s access to specific arenas (like social media
campaigning) and a label for their new-found coalition: “TTIP UnFairhandelbar”2. The day
the negotiations started (17 June 2013), the coalition published a position paper with the name
TTIP nein danke Transatlantische Partnerschaft geht anders!” (TTIP no thanks A
transatlantic partnership looks different), testimony of the early work: extremely detailed and
consisting of diverse claims about every aspect of the future TTIP deal.
These early efforts of coalition formation, training and education are indicative of the
cooperative interaction between activists and NGOs. For both activists and NGOs at this stage
of the campaign, their response to the Expansion Dilemma the question of whether to
expand and search for partners was clear since the asymmetry of power with TTIP
proponents was so strong that any support that could be mustered mattered. Of course, it
could be argued that a larger compound player with more players involved could lead to less
commitment from those participating. Still, the NGOs that got together at this early stage had
similar profiles, had worked together before, and were in a situation in which even small
additional material resources or symbolic solidarity could help the highly committed
organisational core. This early mobilisation and coalition formation not only gave TTIP
opponents an early mover advantage, as they were quick to insert a different reading of TTIP
into social (and sometimes mass) media, but also opened up other arenas. Some NGOs, for
example, were used to street campaigns, others to social media mobilisation, and these arenas
were now broadly accessible and utilised.

This cooperative move also placed them in direct conflict with the government-business-
union trio, which started criticising the coalition for spreading myths and lies. In other words,
while the strategy of the NGO coalition was to focus on the content of the agreement,
government and business actors were trying to “shoot the messenger”. In a sense, at this stage
of the politicisation process, both sides of the game (both the TTIP proponents and the
opponents) followed their usual strategies. It was a familiar game that had played out before;
even though with TTIP the stakes were different, both the players and their strategies
remained largely unsurprising. It was only at the next stage that the anti-TTIP camp managed
to make moves that changed the nature of the whole game.
Period Two: Making Moves (2014-2015)
Civil society and political parties entering new arenas. Establishing links with political
parties is crucial for interest groups to gain access to arenas (such as parliaments, government)
while parties like to have (information about) constituent backing or technical expertise from
societal groups (Bouwen 2002). Some well-established links in the German arena were
quickly activated, such as the (informal) link between business associations and the CDU,
who both vehemently campaigned in favor of TTIP.
Yet on the opposing side too did cooperative interaction move the game into a next phase.
The NGO coalition was in close contact with MPs from the Greens and Die Linke early on,
which resulted in the first parliamentary motions and plenary debates in the months following
the start of negotiation, which were especially reflective of the early coalition joint position
papers. Yet there was cooperation beyond the parliamentary arena as well. In a report by the
European Centre for International Political Economy, it was documented that both cooperated
to hold a massive number of offline events, seminars and hearings for the public to join, in
which the large majority of panelists were NGOs and politicians from the left side of the
political spectrum (Bauer 2016). A lot of German MEPs from the GUE/NGL and the Greens/
EFA groups in the European Parliament also took a strong stance against TTIP in this period,
not only asking questions in the European Parliamentary Arena, but also actively organising
events to raise awareness, publishing video and textual materials on TTIP on dedicated
campaign websites, and even interfering in domestic debates. Rather than focusing on a single
arena, TTIP opponents chose to spread out the battle across a number of arenas, actively
trying to involve as many players and bystanders as possible in the game. It was this dramatic
expansion of the number of arenas involved that caught the proponents of TTIP off-guard.
The Pleaser Dilemma. The rising salience of TTIP especially posed serious problems
and dilemmas for the DGB but also for the social democratic SPD, whose leader and Vice-
Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel had been blowing hot and cold since the onset. He was trying to be
responsive to public concerns on the one hand, but also recognised that he had to be a
responsible actor in a government coalition with the CDU. Gabriel was especially looking for
societal support, which was difficult to find with many (radical) actors stepping up and
making their case against TTIP. Similarly, the DGB had to balance between being responsive
towards its (increasingly critical) base, but also behaving as a responsible actor in
intersectoral negotiations. While initially favoring TTIP together with government parties and
business, the societal pressure (and critical internal voices) now pushed them towards a more
critical stance. In the summer of 2014, the DGB came out with a new position that reflected
this shift: not an outright rejection, but several red lines that could not be crossed, such as
offers on public services, lowering of social standards, or the maintaining of the controversial
investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) in its current form (DGB 2014).
Gabriel, in turn, thought such a position was beneficial, as it reflected the torn position he was
in, which was increasingly affecting his credibility on the issue. One day before a crucial SPD
party convention in September 2014, in which the SPD wanted to get the party line on TTIP
straight, the DGB leadership and Gabriel’s Economy Ministry issued a joint position paper on
TTIP stating their support to TTIP in general, but including several red lines – many of which
are copy-pasted from DGB’s position paper. Faced with a Pleaser Dilemma between
responsiveness to the public and responsibility towards their partners, respectively in
government and in intersectoral negotiations, the SPD and the DGB did not change camps but
moved to the middle, abandoning their previous support for TTIP and taking a more moderate
stance.
Entering the Media Arena. A crucial step for the campaign against TTIP in Germany was
the establishment of connections between activists and NGOs on the one hand, and
mainstream media on the other, that allowed anti-TTIP messages to reach broader audiences
and expand the number of actors and arenas involved in the discussion. Anti-TTIP activism
moved from local Brussels flash mobs and discussions on online platforms into the
mainstream media arena. Interestingly, one of the first key interactions between activists and
German mainstream media took place in Brussels. During an interview with civil society
organisations in 2013, the West-Deutsche Rundfunk reporter Stefen Stuchlik got a folder with
information about ISDS, which inspired him to start an investigation together with his
colleague Kim Otto (Stuchlik 2017, 231).
In February 2014, the ARD aired a first report on the issue “The Fairytale of a Job Miracle” in
which Stuchlik interviewed EU Trade Commissioner Karel de Gucht on the problematic
business models used to justify TTIP negotiations. The report also featured an interview with
Pia Eberhardt (CEO), which gave additional visibility to the activists' efforts. The video of
this report was shared on YouTube by CEO and was subsequently shared among anti-TTIP
activists. Yet, in August 2014, the feature documentary by Stuchlik and Otto TTIP Der
Grosse Deal managed to gain new audiences and lead to an expansion of the players
involved. The documentary discussing the secrecy of negotiations, shared on YouTube by
ARD itself, was seen more than 90 000 times on YouTube and was further shared on
Facebook by the MEP physicist Dr. Klaus Buchner, the Facebook group Frieden Rockt, Attac
Österreich, the political parties Die Linke, Die Partei, the alliance BÜNDNIS 90/DIE
GRÜNEN, The University of Köln, and others. Curiously, the documentary was also shared
on Facebook by the esoteric psychoanalyst Dr. Ruediger Dahlke reaching many new
audiences following him. The NGO Netzpolitik also shared the video and were in turn shared
by the Pirate Party and a number of digital rights organisations. The documentary was also
referred to by articles in Zeit Online and led to a WDR3 radio interview with Stuchlik about
the film.
Stuchlik himself considered the film a “catalyst in the whole process”:
After the first broadcast on ARD with a good, but not excellent number of viewers, the
film made its way on the Internet. It was shared en masse, especially on the websites
of the TTIP opponents, and the excerpt from the interview with the then EU Trade
Commissioner de Gucht made a special career […] Parts of our research were debated
in the EU Parliament and the Bundestag, we ourselves were invited to give lectures as
authors (Stuchlik 2017, 245).
In response to these investigations, social media campaigns, and (small) offline protests,
mainstream newspapers and radio stations started picking up the topic more frequently.
Indeed, (social) media salience data show that with rising online salience, mass media started
devoting more space to the unfolding TTIP discussion, adding an obviously important arena
to the mix (von Nordheim et al. 2018; Gheyle 2019). In August 2014, the team of Die
Recherche blog of Süddeutsche Zeitung dedicated a whole week to the topic of TTIP with
articles examining different aspects of the agreement on each day of the week (Ebitsch 2014),
which further contributed to expanding the number and types of actors interested in the
agreement.
Further Expansion: Non-traditional Players enter the Game. With rising salience of the
issue, the original “TTIP Unfairhandelbar” coalition made further inroads with organisations
and entities that usually have little to do with EU trade policy. Organisations such as
foodwatch joined the fray, which were important in giving the movement a “veneer of
seriousness”, since they were not perceived as “anti-American” or “anti-free trade”. The
involvement of the executive director of foodwatch – Thilo Bode – was especially important,
since he published a book with the titleDie Freihandelslüge: warum TTIP nur die
Konzernen nutzt, und uns allen schadet (The free trade lie: why TTIP only benefits
companies, and hurts us all). Bode was later referred to in a Politico article as ‘the man who
killed TTIP’, since the book became a small bestseller in Germany selling 70,000 copies
(POLITICO 2016).
Two cooperative interactions deserve special mention, given the atypicality of the players
involved. The first is the cooperation between NGOs (like ATTAC Germany and Campact)
and local municipalities, leading to so-called “TTIP free zones”. This type of collaboration,
whereby local MPs symbolically vote a resolution making their own city “TTIP free” had a
precedent in early alter-globalisation mobilisations against the GATS agreement (Siles-
Brügge and Strange 2020), yet what changed with TTIP was the scale of mobilisation and the
substantial expansion of types of actors involved. In September 2014, Thomas Fritz on behalf
of Campact published a study on the consequences of TTIP for federal states and
municipalities provoking a number of reactions by various players. In January 2015 the
German Association of Cities together with Akademie der Künste, the Deutscher Kulturrat,
Verdi and a number of other organisations signed a paper urging “for trade policy in the
interests of people and the environment” (Für eine Handelspolitik im Interesse der Menschen
und der Umwelt, 2015). Ultimately, many German cities issued resolutions declaring
themselves TTIP-free as part of a wider transnational European campaign of TTIP free-zones
(Siles-Brügge and Strange 2020).
A second unusual cooperation was with associations for small and medium-sized enterprises.
The official associations representing SMEs (such as DIHK, BVMW) remained (relatively)
supportive of TTIP. Yet it is in this space that a new group of entrepreneurs and SMEs started
the initiative “KMU gegen TTIP”, organising a petition rejecting TTIP that managed to gain
over 1700 signatures in the course of a few months. Of course, considering the fact that there
are 2 million SMEs in Germany, it is clear that “KMU gegen TTIP” was hardly representative
(Tost, 2015), yet it had a strong symbolic power as it now seemed as if even business actors
(those supposedly winning the most from TTIP) were switching sides. The expansion of
players involved in campaigning against TTIP and the inclusion of a number of new arenas
still did not pose a particularly strong dilemma for TTIP opponents - the principle at this point
was still “the more the better”. Yet this was to change soon.
Period Three: Conflictive End-Game (2015-2016)
Conflictive Cooperation: TTIP UnFairhandelbar – DGB. A final significant rebalancing of
forces happened somewhere by the end of 2014. At that point a new broad alliance was forged
between the TTIP Unfairhandelbar coalition and the more reformist DGB. The unions with
their Ja, aber…position had already officially sided with the reigning SPD since the joint
position paper in September 2014. Now, they started moving more decisively towards the
more rejectionist camp. This change of heart went together with a dilemma (The Expansion
Dilemma) for both the unions and “TTIP Unfairhandelbar” – they had to decide whether they
benefited more from remaining separate or from uniting despite having different visions for
TTIP reforming it according to the unions, rejecting it according to activists and NGOs.
Ultimately, an original and flexible solution was found in the creation of a separate
“mobilisation pillar” called “Stop TTIP” with the addition “for fair trade”. This tagline
could be interpreted in two ways: either stop negotiations right now (because they are bad), or
stop to restart on a different (fair) basis. Being involved in the joint organisation of
demonstrations, yet without officially attaching themselves to the more radical NGOs, was a
convenient solution for DGB.
This “demo-Koalition” was also ambiguous and open in its message to attract the support of
many other players, including political parties, SMEs, cultural organisations and many of the
non-traditional actors described above. It is hence out of this broad, second, coalition pillar
that the biggest triumphs of the campaign occurred: in October 2015, between 150.000-
250.000 people gathered in the streets of Berlin (and other German cities) in a national day of
action against TTIP. At that point, it could reasonably be said that almost the entire German
civil society was campaigning against the business and government stance. In fact, this joint
campaigning, regardless of the level of commitment of individual organisations, was
considered important from a branding perspective, especially from the point of view of the
NGO coalition: they wanted to show this was about the entire civil society speaking out
against TTIP, and not the “usual suspects”.
In early February 2016, the German Association of Magistrates, a Berlin-based judicial
umbrella organisation, came out with a critical position claiming it saw neither “legal basis
nor a need for such a court” (Nielsen 2016), referring to the controversial ISDS mechanism
included in TTIP. Thus, conflict over the agreement expanded also on the legislative arena,
granting additional ammunition and legitimacy to opponents. Altogether, the expansion of
actors at this stage forced opponents (business, political parties) to take a firm position and
articulate this publicly, dragging them away from their preferred mode of quiet politics to the
more problematic for them terrain of public discussion.
Conflict Reaction: EC and Business steps up their Game. Confronted with the broad civil
society, media, and political mobilisations that were taking place, different executive and
business actors stepped up their game. No more convinced of the unassailability of their
position, German business associations in particular were one of the most active national
groups in responding to calls by European Commissioner Malmström to ramp up
communication efforts in favor of TTIP. In January 2015, CEOs from the biggest German car
manufacturers published a joint position paper (printed in several big newspapers) reiterating
the main benefits: economic growth and jobs. Moreover, in September 2015, all German
business associations, with BDI in the lead, teamed up and launched a public campaign
Clear rules - real opportunities: A strong TTIP for Germany to actively engage in the
debate and not let it be dominated by critics.
The initial strategy of executives and business actors to keep a low profile and count on
lobbying and non-public negotiations had been attacked by the opponents of TTIP. Now these
pro-TTIP actors decided to change their approach, go public, and respond to criticism on as
many arenas as possible. This new approach rested on three pillars: large billboards with pro-
TTIP messages were created and put alongside road traffic axes and in the environment of the
large TTIP demonstrations of 10 October 2015; a digital information platform; and a dialogue
forum to engage with citizens in a direct way, inter alia with the hashtag #JaZuTTIP. Thus,
faced with the same dilemmas they had in the beginning of the campaign, business and
executive actors now made completely different choices. Still, timing matters and there was a
strong sense that business and executives were latecomers to these arenas. They had to
counter frames that had already gained wide popularity and ended up playing the game of
TTIP’s opponents merely responding and rarely engaging in proactive moves (Gheyle
2019).
The Limits of Expansion: AfD and the Stop TTIP Coalition
It was during this endgame period that another key dilemma related to expansion emerged,
this time within the camp of anti-TTIP activists. Opposition to TTIP in the far right
Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) had become stronger under the leadership of Frauke Petry
in 2015-2016. Having lost many of its economist founders in this period, the AfD had to
quickly formulate an economic policy and borrowed heavily from left-wing and Green
analyses of TTIP (Rone 2018). This clearly provoked the anxiety of left-Green activists who
did not want to be associated with the radical right. The tense situation escalated in August
2016 when the AfD sent a letter to Christian Weßling, the coordinator of the Stop TTIP
initiative, asking to join a demonstration (cfr. Schroder 2021 for AfD’s infiltration into civil
society). Weßling refused, claiming that their “rejection of right-wing populism and free trade
criticism was meant to demonstrate that there was no space for anti-Americanism and racism
in their initiative” (ibid, 240). Despite the initial openness of Green left players in Germany to
expansion and new coalitions, a potential collaboration with AfD seemed to be clearly the
limit of expansionunthinkable in the German context. What the Extension Dilemma faced
by progressive players shows is that decisions about ideological priorities and alliances had to
be made on the same side of what was often simplistically presented as a conflict between
anti-TTIP “populist scare-mongers” and pro-TTIP “free trade supporters”.
DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSION
This paper has applied a novel analytical framework to analyse the unprecedented
politicisation of TTIP as a highly contentious episode in recent German political history.
Explicitly moving away from the conflict- and social movement centrism that permeate
product-views of politicisation and social movement studies, we used a strategic
interactionism framework to explore the process of politicisation of trade policy in Germany.
We showed that rather than being determined by a small activist group driving a bandwagon
effect, the politicisation of TTIP in Germany ultimately resulted from the actions of a wide
variety of players, including political parties, trade unions, media, religious and cultural
organisations, and small and medium sized business organisations, among others, that had to
consistently negotiate their positions and faced a number of key dilemmas. It showed how
political outcomes are shaped by the timing and outcomes of interactions and dilemmas,
rather than by a list of conditions that has to be present or absent to explain an outcome.
By looking at the unfolding process of the politicisation of TTIP, we can also shed light on
the double transformation of the contestation landscape in Germany. First, it shows that new
issues and claims have entered the protest and electoral arena, in this case exemplified by the
return of struggles over economic integration issues. Exploring this contestation has equally
showed, however, that protest is no longer the exclusive terrain of “progressive” forces, since
far-right forces (here: AfD) eventually tried to appropriate the criticism to TTIP and actively
sought bonds with the progressive front. Secondly, our findings are also testimony of the
ongoing hybridisation of organisational forms of protest, and the blurring line between arenas
where protest takes place. We have seen an intensification of exchanges and cooperation
between parties, NGOs and activists on the left, but also to new alignments among familiar
players (cfr. the change of position on TTIP of both the unions and SPD) and novel ones, such
as the alliance between NGOs and small business or local municipalities.
Finally, our case also sheds an interesting light on the discussion about the increasing
prominence of the “integration-demarcation” cleavage in domestic politics (Kriesi et al.
2008). We see that the conflict constellation surrounding TTIP long involved a more
traditional left-right axis, with extreme-left, green, and a large part of social-democrat forces
opposing a center-right, conservative and liberal bloc. It is only with the late arrival of AfD
that one could interpret the conflict as one between centrist integration actors and challenging
demarcation actors. Yet this example shows that labeling this conflict as such may also
obscure underlying left-right conflict that was equally (or more) important.
All in all, the politicisation of TTIP brought about an important intensification of relations
between Germany’s protest and electoral arena and faced all players involved with choices
with long-lasting consequences. Thousands of citizens went out to the streets to protest
against TTIP and German media followed the intricacies of the agreement creating a sense of
public awareness and knowledge of trade agreements that would make further protests and
contestations of trade much easier. Furthermore, the politicisation of TTIP set important
precedents of cooperation and conflict that players have to consider in all further attempts to
(de)politicise trade. The TTIP Unfairhandelbar coalition in the meantime transformed into a
“Netzwerk Gerechter Welthandel”, showing how some of the ad hoc coalitions formed around
TTIP are more sustainably transformed. At the same time, this broad contention within
Germany had broader consequences for European politics, catapulting German NGOs to the
center of a European-wide mobilisation and helping them create networks and gain resources
and reputation that allowed them to spread contention further not only geographically but also
in time. In this sense, the politicization of TTIP has had a lasting influence on the interactive
dynamics between party and protest politics in Germany.
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... As the contributions to this Special Issue show, the German case offers ample evidence of these developments, with a great variety of protestors mobilising on different issues (Daphi et al. 2021). Specifically, the contributions focus on salient political conflicts and key actors, 'Unteilbar' activism in favour of migration and diversity (Stjepandić, Steinhilper, and Zajak 2022), Fridays for Future protests in favour of climate justice and opponents of local infrastructure projects (Zilles and Marg 2022), large-scale mobilisation against the international trade treaty TTIP (Gheyle and Rone 2022), and anti-Hartz IV protest (Weisskircher, Hutter, and Borbáth 2022). Contributions to this Special Issue also underline that extra-parliamentary mobilisation is not a driver of 'progressive' change only, focusing on the so-called Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident (PEGIDA) (Weisskircher, Hutter, and Borbáth 2022) and on how far-right actors have tried to conquer the sphere of civil society more broadly (Schroeder et al. 2022). ...
... Second, the double transformation of political contestation concerns the organisational forms and arenas of mobilisation. In contrast to arguments that suggest an increasing differentiation, we maintain that the opposite development, i.e. organisational hybridity and closer interactions between protest and electoral politics, characterise contemporary political contestation (Hutter, Kriesi, (Daphi et al. 2021), the contributions to this Special Issue put such processes at the forefront of their analysis, for example, underlining the importance of protestors' alliances with various types of actors such as local politicians and even small-and medium entrepreneurs (Gheyle and Rone 2022) and the influence of street protest on the electoral arena (Weisskircher, Hutter, and Borbáth 2022). Trends towards hybridisation and cross-arena interaction refer to the relation between social movements and political parties and can also be observed when it comes to the relationship between conflict and cooperation in civil society more generally understood. ...
... This strong normative backing underlines the structuring power of new and old cleavages. Gheyle and Rone (2022) study mobilisation surrounding international trade in Germany, where opposition against the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership was particularly strong. In explaining the process behind the politicisation of TTIP, the authors go beyond movement-centrism, tracing down the many players operating in multiple arenas. ...
... Our study also hints at the increasing importance of (far-right) party-movement interactions more generally (see Gheyle and Rone 2022, Schroeder et al. 2022 in this special issue). While AfD has not been able to increase electoral support because of its proximity to Querdenken, the perhaps more important long-term question is to what extent such an approach is contributing to the party's radicalisation. ...
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