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The Transatlantic Free Trade Agreement: It's About the Big Picture

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With the 48-hour news cycle we pick up an issue, spare no time or energy to focus on it, and then drop it to make way for the next big one. We barely remember Sandy Hook, Hurricane Sandy, or even the Boston bombings. News of two weeks ago is ancient. The flash fascination of the public with these issues is understandable though. It could easily be about them. Moving on is also understandable. The human brain buries disasters in deep memory, in self-defense.

The announcement in support of a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) a.k.a. the transatlantic free trade agreement by President Obama at the State of the Union address in January created some buzz. Similarly strong support for a deal was declared by the leaders of the European Union and most member states. Soon the negotiations will begin, and it is in the interest of both sides, the U.S. and the European Union, to make sure the negotiations move fast. Although the half-time elections in the U.S., the European Parliament elections of the European Union are deadlines of a sort, just a word a caution. We might not be able to do this on one tank of gas as President Obama hopes and suggests, but we might with two, which is not that bad at all.

The Tesla electric car cannot quite ride the distance it advertised; perhaps if you left grandma at home and did not take the suitcase with you. To make the deal as comprehensive as possible must be a goal, getting rid of the "excess luggage," the difficult issues cannot be an objective, just in order to safely get to the end of the negotiations. It has always been the position of our Center [for Transatlantic Relations at SAIS] that the agreement must be as comprehensive as possible. Put all issues on the table, and take off as little as possible in the course of the negotiations.

All the difficult ones must be part of the process and none should be avoided from the start. The negotiators must try to find smart compromise on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), on privacy, intellectual property, on regulation of the financial sector, on the audio-visual industry and others. Exceptions, guided by protectionism, fear or the simple desire to reach an agreement on either side would be harmful to the project.

Negotiators must be mindful the of the other stakeholders in the process.

The continuous and generous involvement of the European Parliament and Congress is key. They will have the final say, when the treaty will have to be ratified. Negotiators must take note of their views early. Not all requests by individual members or even groups will be included in the agreement. However it is a good investment of political capital to deal with them at the outset.

Among the stake holders, business -- big and small -- must be seen as allies, who stand to benefit greatly from an agreement. They know.

It is a lot more difficult to identify the "social interest groups," with a very diverse agenda. No effort should be spared to engage with them as well, on a serious level. They are the ones who have the ability to mobilize the public for, or against the agreement. They cannot all sit at the negotiating table. But taking them seriously from the start will save a lot of headache at the end of the process. Some of their views might be outdated, narrow-minded and even vicious. Many of their concerns however are legitimate, historic and social and merit honest debate and consideration.

The big mountain to climb for communicators will be the general public. A well informed public is the solution to many of the issues above. They must be treated as stakeholders in the process. It is the responsibility of the political and business elites in support of the agreement to get the messages to them, keep them well informed. It is their role to be out front and explain why the TTIP is of historic importance. Have no doubt: opponents of the deal are already out there working the crowds.

It is easier perhaps to win support, when there are tangible arguments like growth, job creation and increased trade. That is part of the narrative. It is imperative however, that in the public discourse the strategic importance of the deal is not missed.

At the end of the day the exercise is about the future, the resilience of our free and democratic societies. NATO was for over half a century the backbone of the transatlantic community of democracies, herded together by the threat of war. With the demise of communism, the old strategic threat gone, the relationship has lost much of its vitality. The free trade agreement can be the overarching "infrastructure," which can recreate that sense of community. It will revitalize the relationship; reinforce the sense of togetherness based on values, the acceptance of the rule of law, democratic control and transparency in the dealings of our societies. Not aimed against anyone, it will set standards for others to follow.

There is a strong case for keeping the free trade agreement on the front burner in the media including social media, not to treat it as news in that fast paced news cycle. In the end it's about the big picture, not about the small print.

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