On Friday, the southern Belgian region Wallonia finally withdrew its veto on CETA, thereby ending two weeks of intense marathon discussions with the EU and the Belgium Federal State. The agreement, which needed to be unanimous among the 28 member states, was signed on Sunday in Brussels.
Between 2009 and 2014 the EU and Canada have been negotiating the creation of CETA (Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement). Advocates argue that the deal is supposed to reduce trade barriers on 98 per cent of goods between Europe and Canada and boost trade by 20 per cent, thereby creating wealth and growth on both sides of the Atlantic.
Nevertheless, the agreement, hated by anti-globalisation groups, has raised a lot of concerns around Europe. Some fear it would reduce environmental and worker protections as well as consumer rights, especially regarding food safety. Some also fear that it would benefit big companies and multinationals, not only over small scale/local businesses (especially those active in agriculture) but also over governments and the civilians’ interests that lie behind. Companies could under ISDS (Investor State Dispute Settlement; rules that would apply under CETA), sue governments for new laws or policies that could reduce their profits in the future.
Belgium, because of its constitution, needed all its regional parliaments to accept the agreement in order to give consent. Wallonia’s centre-left government was concerned about the lack of protection for its farmers and the above mentioned ISDS. The socialist minister-president of the region Paul Magnette feared it could “weaken the power of states to regulate, to protect public services, social and environmental norms, everything that makes the European model to which we are really attached”. Finally, they feared CETA could be the ‘Trojan Horse’ of TTIP; the even more controversial trade agreement currently under discussion between the US and EU.
The region claimed they sent the EU concerns about the agreement when they first saw it a year and half ago, to which they only received an answer in early October, therefore explaining their late and unexpected opposition. Magnette and his parliament were not against CETA but wanted to ensure that the framework behind the agreement was solid, as it will be shaping trade agreements made by the EU in future. André Antoine, president of the region’s parliament, said to TV station RTBF: “We want to bring back law and democracy to these great treaties that affect the daily lives of our citizens.”
The results Wallonia obtained were a review, clarification and amendment of the agreement which they claim have appeased some of their fears, and as Magnette said, secured a “better treaty”. Finally, he suggested that “[with] the improved CETA, TTIP is dead and buried”.
The delay in signing this treaty has called into question EU credibility, especially considering the fact that Canadian economic values are very much in line with those of Europe. Is it actually worth it for the 20 other countries engaged in trade negotiations with the EU to continue the discussions? If even Canada was at the mercy of a European regional veto, what hope does this hold for less like-minded nations?
In order to resolve its inner disagreements and not face a similar internationally degrading situation, the EU will have to adopt a more democratic way of negotiating trade agreements. Only then will it gain back the declining trust of European citizens. They will have to make agreements which allow benefits to be fairly distributed across countries, regions and social classes. Only then will the EU regain its legitimacy and success.