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Protesters rally across Germany against mega trade deal

Around 250,000 people were expected to turn out for protests in seven German cities

Demonstrators took to the streets across Germany on Saturday in protest over a massive transatlantic trade agreement, dealing a new blow to the disputed accord.

In Berlin, as in Munich, there was a sea of flags as people flocked to join the rallies despite the rain, carrying placards and banners representing everything from anti-globalisation groups to political parties and unions, AFP correspondents said.

"People are not letting their mood be ruined" by the weather, a spokeswoman for the organisers, Kathrin Ottovay, told AFP.

Roland Suess from anti-globalisation group Attac had earlier told AFP they expected 250,000 people to turn out in seven German cities.

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 is 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 are in favour of 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 28-nation bloc's labour market and environmental standards, and lead to more outsourcing and thereby job losses.

Another prickly issue is the 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.

- 'A threat to millions' -

"CETA and TTIP threaten environmental and consumer protection for millions of people in Europe and North America," said Jennifer Morgan, executive director Greenpeace International.

"These agreements will weaken food safety laws, environmental legislation, banking regulations and undermine the sovereign powers of nations," she said.

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 said: "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".

- 'Danger to democracy' -

Suspicion is running high in Germany over the accords.

A recent survey found some 28 percent of respondents doubted if free trade could really bring benefits. More than half (52 percent) say it would lead to weaken standards and spawn increasingly inferior products.

Peter Gauweiler, who left the CDU and resigned as an MP in protest over Merkel's stance in the euro crisis, went as far as to call the proposed treaties "a danger for democracy".

Writing in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, he denounced the proposed special court as a "form of secular sharia of capitalist managers".

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.

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