COIMBRA, Portugal — The American diplomat turns heads when he rides into rural Portuguese towns on a roaring Harley Davidson or behind the wheel of a vintage Ford Mustang, bringing what he says is an important message: the free trade deal being negotiated between the United States and the European Union is nothing to be afraid of.
Robert Sherman, the U.S. Ambassador to Portugal, is using his showmanship and sense of humor on road trips to spread the word about the potential benefits of a project President Barack Obama wants to leave as his legacy in international commerce. The ambassador tells businesses here that doing away with tariffs and red tape will boost their exports to the U.S., create jobs and help propel listless European economies like Portugal's.
The hope is it will create wealth for more than 800 million people on each side of the Atlantic.
But many Europeans remain skeptical. They worry a deal may erode their cherished laws on environmental protection or labor security. Some say it will open the door to genetically modified "Frankenfood," surrender power to big corporations, strip away workers' rights and industry subsidies, and endanger public services. The EU's new trade chief said recently she was struck by the "intense concern" felt in Europe about what would be the world's single largest free trade agreement.
Add to that a backlash over U.S. spying and the initial coyness of EU officials in disclosing what was on the negotiating table, and the battle for public opinion is on.
"I think it's important for people to understand the advantages of (an agreement)," Sherman said on a recent trip to meet businessmen and officials in Coimbra, Portugal's third-largest city. "Over the long run, having a vibrant trade relationship ... will advantage companies on both sides of the Atlantic," the Massachusetts lawyer said.
The U.S. ambassador to Stockholm, Mark Brzezinski, had the same aim when he recently biked 650 kilometers across Sweden to promote the deal, called the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership — known as TTIP and pronounced T-TIP. Also, American embassies in Germany and the Netherlands have offered grants for local projects that build awareness of TTIP.
U.S. and EU officials who back the talks, which started in July 2013, trumpet TTIP as a potential bonanza. It could boost the EU's economy by 120 billion euros ($150 billion) and the U.S. economy by 90 billion euros ($113 billion), they say.
In Coimbra, where he drove a dark red 1971 Ford Mustang convertible, Sherman addressed several dozen local businessmen in an auditorium. Operating in one of Europe's smallest and frailest economies, they were keen to break into the American market but discouraged by the difficulties they encountered.
A manufacturer of 3-D printers said he was eyeing an export deal with a U.S. company but the American contract stipulates that any dispute would be subject to New York laws and he feared he would be unable to afford lawyers' fees. An industrial washing machine salesman grumbled about overheads: sending a U.S. customer a 70-euro component costs him 40 euros in taxes, and the certification to sell machines in the U.S. can cost him more than $2,000. An auto parts company executive complained transatlantic shipping is pricey, and a software developer was frustrated by how hard it is to place engineers for short periods at their U.S.-based projects.
The ambassador told them all: TTIP is made for you.
The agreement, he said, would take legal issues out of courts by using a projected Investor Dispute Settlement Mechanism. It would also scrap tariffs, ensure mutual recognition of product certification, and bring higher trade volume that would lower shipping costs. The European Commission, meanwhile, is pressing to get more skilled professionals allowed into the United States.
"I'm very optimistic about (TTIP)," said Jose Camarinha, the industrial washing machine salesman. "I think it will be a trade revolution."
Portugal's government reckons a deal would create 40,000 jobs in the country in a first phase. With unemployment above 13 percent, that is a seductive promise.
For many Europeans, however, it's not that simple. Some 260 activist organizations across Europe are against the deal on concerns over a range of issues. The United Kingdom-based World Development Movement, which campaigns for economic justice, last month started an online petition to stop the deal and drew some 750,000 signatures in just two weeks.
The activists say the deal threatens to take away more than it delivers by getting rid of European safeguards and standards. American producers, for example, are demanding that their chickens rinsed with chlorine, hormone-treated beef and genetically modified produce be allowed onto European supermarket shelves. Another bugbear is the shale gas extraction technique known as fracking, which is disliked in much of Europe because of the environmental damage it causes.
Critics say the proposed arbitration tribunals to settle investor disputes will allow big business and their lawyers to circumvent courts and sue governments who won't allow shale gas exploration like in the U.S. by arguing it is a trade barrier.
"We'll be importing a series of norms ... which for Europe will be a big step backward," says Pedro Krupenski of Portuguese non-governmental organization Oikos, which is one of the groups fighting TTIP.
Brussels negotiators say those misgivings are being addressed in the talks and that Europeans have nothing to fear.
Even so, economist Andre Sapir of Brussels-based think-tank Bruegel predicts several years of hard bargaining before a deal is struck. Given that the negotiations were launched at the highest level, "the political cost of giving up is too high," he said.