When German farmers and activists descended upon Chancellor Angela Merkel's office building Wednesday morning, they brought along some special guests — 17 pigs. The stunt was the latest European backlash against a proposed free trade deal with the U.S. that could lift restrictions on American meat sold in Europe.
Under the watchful eye of German police officers, the pigs munched happily on straw strewn across the pavement to keep the herd from running amok.
The protesters said the pigs at today's protest were meant to symbolize wholesome farming, rather than to insult Merkel. Germany is a huge consumer of pork, with the country slaughtering more pigs annually than any other country in Europe, according to the Heinrich Boell Foundation, which is part of the Green political movement.
But there is little doubt that traditional German farmers and environmental groups are unhappy with the chancellor and her government. They object to the German government's support of industrial farming and some genetic engineering, as well as the secret conversations with the U.S. and other European leaders. Those conversations are laying the groundwork for official free trade negotiations that are expected to start in June.
A trade deal between Europe and the U.S. would create the world's largest single market. But civil society organizations in Europe fear their governments will go too far and sacrifice existing labor and consumer rights.
Meat production is not technically a major issue in the talks, but it's a key consumer issue activists can use to mobilize Europeans against a trade deal, says Olaf Boehnke, who heads the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
A recent "meat atlas," for example, released by the Berlin-based Heinrich Boell Foundation, stated that Europeans do not want American meat pumped full of growth hormones, just as American consumers do not want antibiotics in their food.
Merkel's press office declined to comment about today's pig protest.
The herd in attendance belongs to Rudolph Buehler, who heads the farmers' cooperative in the southern Germany community of Schwaebisch Hall. He's an organic farmer who says his family has raised livestock and tilled its 123 acres since 1378.
"We are doing sustainable agriculture and we are fighting for our indigenous rights," he says.
Protest organizer Jochen Fritz says farmers like Buehler are worried not just about quality, but unfair competition.
"In Europe, the consumers don't want to have this stuff in their food, so we will always be more expensive in production," he says.
Buehler said he and other farmers believe the trade deal won't be a fair partnership. "Even Obama — the Nobel Prize winner for peace — says 'America first,' " he said. So "[what] chance have we farmers in Germany to resist?"
Buehler added they prefer a free zone with Eastern European countries to "strengthen European culture."
Organizers said the German protest will continue on Saturday, although without the pigs.
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The U.S. and Europe are moving closer to a free trade deal that would create the world's largest single market. Some European activists are stepping up protests against that agreement. They say it would strip consumers of their rights and workers of their livelihoods.
Farmers and environmental groups used pigs to make their point today in front of the office of the German chancellor in Berlin. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson was there.
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Activists sweep hay into a fluffy pile in front of Angela Merkel's office building to welcome more than a dozen squealing protesters.
(SOUNDBITE OF PIGS)
NELSON: Organic farmer Rudolf Buehler hustles the pigs past amused police officers who are here to make sure things don't get out of hand. The pigs appear happy to oblige. They huddle in an orderly group, drinking water and munching on hay.
RUDOLF BUEHLER: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: Buehler tells onlookers that the pigs are from his southern German farm, which his family has worked for nearly seven centuries.
BUEHLER: They are a symbol of free farmers.
NELSON: They also might be seen as a symbol of insult to the chancellor, no?
BUEHLER: Yes. I think she might watch and even NSA will watch us. I'm very sure about that.
NELSON: But he says his trip here with the pigs is no joke. Buehler says he doesn't know how else to convince Merkel that a U.S.-European free trade pact, opening the market to more American meat, could end up wiping out traditional German farms like his. He says it costs a lot more for small farmers to produce pork and other meat products that meet E.U. standards and customers' tastes. And those European tastes are increasingly anti-American when it comes to beef, chicken and pork.
A report released last week by the Green Movement's Heinrich Boll Foundation charge that Europeans do not want U.S. meat pumped full of growth hormones.
BARBARA UNMUESSIG: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: At a Berlin news conference, foundation president Barbara Unmuessig said people need to know what animals eat because what they eat, we eat. These concerns, coupled with the secrecy clouding backroom talks between U.S. and European officials in advance of formal trade negotiations, are fueling unease. And while meat production may not be the biggest issue for the governments, it's one that trade pact opponents are latching on to, says Olaf Boehnke, who heads the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
OLAF BOEHNKE: Even if it's a minor issue or not a major one in the entire agreement, it might be one of the few stakes which the protesters can use, actually, to mobilize against the entire agreement.
NELSON: He adds that rumors on Twitter last week suggested Merkel and President Obama had struck a deal on agricultural matters. Such rumors contributed to the anger at today's protests. Again, farmer Buehler.
BUEHLER: So far, we see the discussion is dominated by the large industrial companies and we farmers are not being asked, you know?
NELSON: Buehler says he prefers that Germany forget about striking an all-encompassing trade deal with the U.S. and instead form a free zone with eastern European countries to strengthen the continent's ties.
Merkel's press office, meanwhile, declined to comment about the pig protest or the trade talks. The farmers and environmental activists outside her building said they will hold a second larger demonstration on Saturday but without the pigs. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.