Obama’s Hannover Visit Is About Way More Than Trade

President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel talk on a balcony of the German Chancellery overlooking Berlin, Germany. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza (photo was cropped).


This weekend, President Obama will pay a visit to the Hannover Trade Fair, one of the largest trade and manufacturing shows in the world, to open the show as part of this year’s focus on the United States as a featured partner country. Obama’s attendance serves as a reminder of the sheer magnitude of the US trade relationship not only with Germany, where the United States is the top importer of German-made machinery, transportation equipment and chemicals, but also with the European Union as a whole. Together, the US and the EU account for 35% of global GDP, engaging in trade and investment that is responsible for around 5.5 trillion dollars of commercial sales a year.

Obama’s visit comes at a time when the value of free trade is being questioned. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), despite the clamor and supposed controversy surrounding it, lays the groundwork for the European Union and the United States to collaborate in areas where the two entities have far more in common than the differences that have been highlighted in discourse. Worse, perhaps, than the possibility of eating incorrectly labeled Parmesan or driving around in a German-made illegal emissions machine (wait a second… didn’t that already happen?) is the distinct possibility that, by refusing to unite in the face of challenges in policy areas like trade, the West will be sending a message to the transatlantic partnership’s detractors  (like Vladimir Putin) that the EU and the United States just can’t come to a consensus on anything. Here’s the thing about globalization: it’s already happened. We are more interconnected and are benefiting from that interconnectivity more than at any time in history. To be horrified by its impact now is like showing up a week after a party happened and suggesting that someone change the music because you’re not really into the song. It is too late to decide not to engage. There is no door to close.

TTIP, should it eventually pass, would not only spur economic growth but would also send a positive message about the transatlantic relationship whose role as a global bedrock has been muddled in recent years. Strengthened ties between the US and the EU run counter to populist narratives from political figures and grassroots movements surrounding key transatlantic issues of today- the US presidential campaign, refugee crisis, annexation of Crimea, and Brexit- and would prove an excellent tool in assuring the global community that the transatlantic partnership is strong and sustainable. This runs in direct opposition to the rhetoric of those who count the EU as down and out, the United States as a waning global hegemon, and rule of law- its role in trade in particular- as malleable at best. Sending a strong, supportive message about trade sends a strong, supportive message about the US-EU relationship and the democratic values that we share in a host of other arenas where those values are under attack. This is in sharp contrast to Putin’s Russia, a place where corruption is the name of the game and playing victim to globalization has enabled the country to bully not only fragile countries but also some of the world’s strongest players. In the waning days of his presidency, Obama has the opportunity in Hannover to send a strong message not only about the importance of the US-EU trade relationship, but also about the transatlantic relationship itself as a vital and dependable US partner.

My first experience with the Hannover Trade Fair was in 2013, working to promote US companies at the show. The featured country that year was Russia, and President Putin opened the Fair as a keynote speaker alongside Chancellor Merkel. (This was the trip during which photographers captured the priceless moment Putin ogled a topless protester.) Even in 2013, before Crimea and before Russia’s involvement in Syria, Putin gave off a distinctly ominous vibe as he took the stage. Fluent in German after years spent working as a KGB agent in the GDR, he nonetheless gave his entire speech in Russian, not even taking the opportunity to give a hearty Danke schön to attendees or the German Chancellor for her hospitality. On our way into the auditorium, we were greeted not only by traditional Russian folk dancers but also by throngs of protesters, all addressing various transgressions of the Putin regime.

Since Putin’s visit to the Fair in 2013, much has come to pass not only in Europe but around the globe, and Obama would do well to underscore transatlantic solidarity in these troubling times. I hope that on Sunday April 24, President Obama speaks to shared transatlantic prosperity, solidarity and values not only in relation to trade and our shared economies, but also in the context of US-EU leadership in the global community.

***

Heidi Obermeyer is the Program Coordinator at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at SAIS in Washington, DC. She is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Transatlantic Masters program and has studied and worked in Berlin, Munich and Bath, England. Her Twitter is @HeidiObermeyer

Editor’s Note: The original article mistakenly stated that Obama would speak on Saturday April 23. He is speaking on Sunday April 24. 

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