BERLIN (AFP) - Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to take to the streets across Germany on Saturday (Sept 17) in protest against a massive transatlantic trade deal, dealing a new blow to the disputed accord.
"We hope that more than 250,000 participants will join in the march nationwide," said Roland Suess from the anti-globalisation group Attac, one of the organisers of the demonstrations in seven German cities, including the capital Berlin and economic powerhouse Frankfurt.
The European Union and the United States began negotiating the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) in 2013, aiming to create the world's biggest free trade market of 850 million consumers.
A new round of talks are due to start in October and US President Barack Obama wants the deal concluded before he leaves office in January.
A smaller version of TTIP is also in the works with Canada, and that deal, called CETA, is due to be signed in October.
Exporters want the deal as it promises lower tariffs, less red tape and a wider base of consumers for their goods.
But the negotiations have faced opposition in Europe, where consumers fear it would ride roughshod over the currently 28-nation bloc's labour market and environmental standards, and lead to more outsourcing and thereby job losses.
Another prickly issue is plans for a special court to hear cases by companies against governments over breaches of regulatory issues, which opponents see as giving firms a veto over public policy.
Not only the people, but European governments too are torn over the planned deals.
The French government has put up strident opposition, with Prime Minister Manuel Valls demanding an end to the talks while the leader of Europe's biggest economy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, voiced her backing for a deal.
In a recent interview, Merkel noted the high unemployment rate in several EU countries and added that "we should do everything we can to create jobs - the free trade agreements are part of that." But even within her right-left "grand coalition", there is dissent.
Vice-Chancellor and Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel last month declared that talks on TTIP have "de facto failed".
He had also insisted that "Europeans must not give in to (the Americans') demands".
Suspicions are running high in Germany against the accords. A recent survey found some 28 per cent of respondents doubted if free trade could really bring benefits. More than half (52 per cent) say it would lead to weaken standards and increasingly inferior products.
Peter Gauweiler, who had quit his CDU post and MP mandate in protest against Merkel's stance in the euro crisis, went as far as to call the proposed treaties "a danger for democracy".
The proposed special court is a "form of secular sharia of capitalist managers"," he wrote in a commentary in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung.
But conservative daily Die Welt was more positive.
"Before money can be distributed (to the population), it must first come in," wrote its columnist Daniel Eckert.
"A further lowering of tariff barriers, the dismantling of bureaucracy and international standardisation are rather cost-effective methods to create greater wealth that future generations can benefit from," he argued.