Walking alongside the River Elbe, it’s easy to get the sense of Hamburg’s long history as a port. Brick warehouses in the German city date to the mid-19th century, though most of those have been converted to offices or museums.
But walk farther along the river toward the North Sea — and you can see the 21st century global economy in action. Tall cranes hoist cargo on and off massive ships. A lot of the shipments involve finished goods. But much of what moves through this port is big and bulky.
“Here we handle about 10 million tons of iron ore and coal for coal refineries or iron or steel production somewhere in the hinterland,” says Axel Mattern, CEO of the Port of Hamburg Marketing Association.
The hinterland, in Hamburg’s case, means not just inland Germany but all of Central Europe. The coal moving through Hamburg powers the factories that produce the goods that then come back here to be shipped out.
“Imports and exports are relatively balanced,” says Stefan Matz, who heads the international section at the Hamburg Business Development Corp. “We import machinery, we import electronics, we import chemicals, and many other products, and we also export most of [those] products as well.”
The United States is one of the biggest partners in this two-way trade. The Port of Hamburg’s trade volume has more than doubled since 1990 and is projected to double again by 2030.
One way to increase this flow of goods would be to complete a trade pact between the U.S. and the European Union. The Obama administration is pushing just such a deal, called the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP.
This year, trade talks with Europeans have been largely overshadowed in the U.S. by controversy over a separate deal with Pacific Rim countries. Negotiations involving that pact are expected to wrap up this year. And then next year, the focus will shift to the European talks.
Here in Hamburg, business leaders strongly back TTIP.
“If we do not do this with one of our biggest partner countries like the U.S., there will be other countries in the world — our big competitors, for example China — who will then set the standards. And those standards may not be the standards that are related to our Western values,” says Corinna Nienstedt, who heads the international department of the Hamburg Chamber of Commerce.
As popular as TTIP is in Hamburg, polls show that more than a third of Germans oppose it. They fear corporations will use it as a way to slip in lower health and environmental standards.
“It will be only the big multinational corporations that will benefit from this trade,” says Boris Loheide, an activist with the Cologne branch of Attac, a group trying to stop the treaty. “If you hear about the anti-TTIP movement being anti-American, just don’t believe it. It’s not about you. It’s about big companies, and I don’t care where they are from.”
Even if U.S. and European negotiators do reach an agreement on TTIP in 2016, it’s unlikely Congress would vote on it before 2017, under a new administration.