TTIP Town Halls in Alabama: Free Trade in the Land of Dixie

WASHINGTON, DC/BIRMINGHAM and MOBILE, ALABAMA (January 22, 2015) – With 2015 promising to be a pivotal year for negotiations on a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the Bertelsmann Foundation continued its efforts to engage local and regional communities throughout the United States under the auspices of its TTIP Town Hall program. The third stop on the program’s five-stop tour saw the Foundation visit Birmingham and Mobile, Alabama on January 21-22 to explore and discuss the impact of a proposed US-EU free-trade agreement on the state’s businesses and communities.

Town Hall engagements in both cities were tied together by one underlying theme: TTIP’s impact on small businesses. The Birmingham Town Hall, held in partnership with the Office of the Representative of German Industry and Trade (RGIT) and the Birmingham Business Alliance, opened with a keynote address by former Alabama Congressman Jo Bonner, who set the tone for the morning discussion by offering a Capitol Hill perspective on the negotiations. TTIP, Bonner said, was “a big deal and a big opportunity”. The US had signed 13 free-trade agreements since the 1980s, none of which is as important as a prospective agreement with Europe, he added. But securing such an agreement, Bonner warned, will be impossible without the support of businesses in Alabama and throughout the US.

TTIP could be a “game-changer” for e-commerce while reducing customs-facilitation delays for small businesses from “days to hours”.

Following the Congressman’s remarks, a panel of Washington, DC-based US and EU experts discussed potential opportunities and pitfalls associated with a TTIP, and the ways in which a TTIP could further open European markets to Alabama small businesses. The speakers were Marjorie Chorlins (vice president for European affairs at the US Chamber of Commerce), Thomas Lambert (deputy chief of mission at the Embassy of Belgium in Washington, DC) and Dr. Christina Sevilla (deputy assistant US trade representative for small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs)). Sevilla noted some of the benefits TTIP could bring SMEs, arguing that an agreement could be a “game-changer” for e-commerce while reducing customs-facilitation delays for small businesses from “days to hours”.

A second panel, comprising local business leaders, shared their experiences trying to export to Europe and the regulatory barriers that complicate these efforts. While hopeful for an agreement, the local business leaders argued that a clear understanding of export rules and the removal of these barriers were essential to business expansion.

The Bertelsmann Foundation TTIP Town Hall team then traveled on to Mobile for another event, this time in partnership with RGIT and the Mobile Chamber of Commerce. Sevilla, Chorlins and Lambert again provided expert analysis alongside Michael Lee (chairman of the Alabama District Export Council), who offered a local and statewide perspective on regional free-trade agreements. The Mobile discussion again focused on the potential impact of a TTIP on local SMEs and explored a TTIP agreement’s effect on Mobile’s burgeoning aerospace industry. With a new Airbus plant set to open in the city later this year, trans-Atlantic trade is playing an increasingly important role in the local economy.

The Birmingham and Mobile Town Hall meetings provided all participants with a better understanding of Alabama’s ties to Europe, and the benefits and challenges that a free-trade agreement with Europe could bring.

The Foundation’s TTIP Town Hall program is supported by a grant from the European Commission and is dedicated to fostering greater American awareness of and debate on TTIP. It seeks to air a wide variety of views on a possible free-trade agreement, often from people and associations whose voices would otherwise not be heard. In this way, the program attempts to enhance the democratic process behind the TTIP negotiations.

The Town Hall program also focuses on TTIP’s possible US local and regional aspects by expanding the free-trade discussion beyond Washington, DC. The Bertelsmann Foundation will host two additional 2015 Town Hall meetings in Columbus, Ohio and Los Angeles, California.