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Organisers are hailing a huge success, claiming that 250,000 people marched in Berlin on Saturday to protest against proposed free trade deals between Europe and both the United States and Canada.

“This is the biggest protest that this country has seen for many, many years,” Christoph Bautz, director of citizens’ movement Campact told protesters in a speech at the rally, spearheaded by an alliance of environmental groups, charities and opposition parties.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has said she wants the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with Washington finalised before President Obama leaves office.

But opposition to the TTIP has risen over the past year in Germany, with critics fearing the pact will hand too much power to big multinationals at the expense of consumers and workers.

Demonstrators – police gave a reduced estimate of those present – say it will also lower health and environmental standards, for example fully opening up to GM crops, widely used in America but viewed with suspicion in Europe.

Then there is the question of how to integrate Europe’s farm animal welfare standards into the world’s biggest trade deal which critics complain is being drawn up in secret.

Some activists say it will force Europeans to eat chlorine-washed chicken or meat from cattle fed growth-enhancing hormones – ideas rejected by the EU as ‘pure fantasy’.

The level of resistance has taken Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government by surprise and underscores the challenge it faces to turn the tide in favour of the deal which supporters say will create a market of 800 million and serve as a counterweight to China’s economic clout.

In a full-page letter published in several German newspapers on Saturday, Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel warned against “scaremongering”.

Businesses hope the trade deal will deliver over 88 billion euros of economic gains on both sides of the Atlantic.

“A fair and comprehensive free trade deal promotes growth and prosperity in Europe. We should actively participate in the rules for world trade of tomorrow,” Ulrich Grillo, head of the BDI Federation of German industries, said in a statement.

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