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.