Trade by the people, for the people
BERLIN — The EU is continuing to pursue its trade policy without learning from past mistakes.
It is an often-repeated fallacy that all criticism of trade deals like CETA and TTIP is rooted in a blanket opposition to international trade. This could not be further from the truth. Germans — who came out strongly against both agreements — overwhelmingly support international trade. The nuance is that they think this trade should serve the general interest, not just the interests of large corporations.
Unfortunately, the European Commission hasn’t learned from the strong opposition to CETA, its trade deal with Canada. Instead, it is steadfastly following a path that will inevitably provoke the ire of its citizens and undermine its appeal across the bloc.
The EU is currently pursuing free-trade agreements with several trading partners, including the Mercosur trade bloc (Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay), Mexico, Indonesia, Japan and Vietnam. These agreements would cover not only market access issues, such as an increase in Brazilian meat exports to the EU, but also the harmonization of regulations for consumer, environmental and health protection.
Behind all the rhetoric, the Commission’s planned trade deals undermine important global agreements reached by the international community.
The precautionary principle enshrined in the EU law should play a decisive role here. This principle holds that, in the absence of scientific consensus about the risks of a product or process, policymakers can delay or suspend its approval until there is sound evidence of its safety.
The Commission failed to unambiguously incorporate this principle into its deal with Canada and continues to neglect it in agreements that are currently on the negotiating table.
This apparent phase-out of the precaution-based approach is also evident in the environmental risks that are being tolerated under the agreements.
Increased market access for Indonesian products, for example, would lead to a further expansion of palm oil production with all its ramifications, including the displacement of small farmers, human rights abuses and deforestation, which in turn contributes to global warming and the loss of biodiversity. Similar impacts can be anticipated in Brazil.
What kind of globalization can we hope to achieve with trade deals like these? Certainly not the sustainable kind. Behind all the rhetoric, the Commission’s planned trade deals undermine important global agreements reached by the international community.
The Commission should turn to independent studies to investigate the agreement’s impacts and avoid potential negative effects. In many cases, impact assessments of this kind are either never conducted or, as with the Japan agreement, kept suspiciously under wraps.
The EU’s trade deals also raise important democratic concerns. Even groups that were supportive of the TTIP and CETA agreements have raised questions over the possibility that new free-trade agreements would undermine the bloc’s democratic principles. Committees to be established under the agreements would have the power to amend the provisions of a deal without adequate democratic control.
The issue of insufficient democratic legitimacy has also taken center stage in the pending constitutional complaint against CETA in Germany and will most likely be subject to review by the European Court of Justice.
Overall, the EU seems to view democratic processes as irritating impediments to be overcome, much like trade barriers. The provisions on investment courts in some of its new draft agreements do not even include the few improvements that were achieved in the EU’s negotiations with Canada. If these provisions are implemented, the regulatory capacity of the trading partners would be disproportionately restricted.
But that’s not all. The Commission is now planning to split future agreements into “EU-only” and “mixed” parts in order to avoid repeating the tedious ratification process for CETA, which requires the approval not only of the Council of the European Union and the European Parliament, but also the parliaments of individual member countries.
The European Commission’s approach to global trade has come in for stinging criticism | Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images
Going forward, EU members would not be given the chance to vote on aspects of the free-trade agreements that are within the EU’s “exclusive competence,” including provisions on standards for consumer, environmental and health protection — in spite of the fact that these matters would have a direct impact on the daily lives of European citizens.
The EU’s plans to exclude citizens and their parliaments from these types of decisions in the future are unacceptable. The decision-making process in ratifying CETA may be excruciatingly slow, but this does not justify the abandonment of basic democratic principles.
The EU’s trade agreements must be reformed. Otherwise, public resentment toward the EU will only deepen. And no one — regardless of their views on trade — will benefit if that happens.
Thilo Bode is executive director of Foodwatch International.