For the past month, European news outlets have fixated on Wallonia, a Belgian region of approximately 3.6 million inhabitants, which refused to sign off on the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) between Canada and the European Union (EU). In a 46-14 vote on October 14, the Walloon parliament chose not to allow the Belgian federal government to give its assent, along with 27 other EU member states, to this agreement. Labelled a “second-generation” trade deal, CETA would not only remove tariffs on 98% of goods and services exchanged between the EU and Canada, but would reduce non-tariff barriers like regulatory standards. It would also include a legal mechanism called the Investment Court System (ICS), allowing foreign investors to sue states if new policies are seen to threaten future profits.
The region’s parliamentary vote was followed almost immediately by a barrage of condescension. At a summit of EU leaders in Brussels, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite stated that “we are hostages of internal politics of one country”, and on another occasion, Canada’s International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland claimed that the agreement had the support of 27.5 of the EU’s 28 member states, in an effort to present an image of broad consensus across the EU. Prominent European parliamentarian Guy Verhofstadt, himself a former Belgian prime minister, went as far as suggesting that the European Commission should circumvent the need for member state assent. Following Wallonia’s decision, the sentiment conveyed from Brussels, Strasbourg, and Ottawa was that the Walloons had hijacked the trade agreement at the expense of everyone else in the EU.
This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Beyond Wallonia, other Belgian regions soon expressed concern regarding the nature of CETA, and what they saw as its potential consequences for their social standards and sectors like agriculture. The Spanish region of Catalonia also notified the European Trade Commissioner of its parliament’s opposition to CETA, despite its inability to hold a binding vote on the agreement’s ratification.
Similarly, major parties in several EU member states have expressed opposition to the agreement. Perhaps most notably, Germany’s Social Democrats (SDP) were far from unanimous in supporting CETA, due to concerns over everything from environmental regulations to the precedent it set for the introduction of the far less popular Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the United States and the EU.
Likely the most visible opposition to CETA and TTIP has come from civil society. It is perhaps not surprising that environmental groups or corporate watchdogs oppose the treaty, but farmers, trade unionists, and ordinary citizens worried about corporate overreach on democratic decision making have joined their ranks since. More officially, a petition to hold a referendum on CETA’s ratification has been gaining momentum in the Netherlands. Beyond this example however, it is clear that a significant, if diverse, coalition opposes the trade deal but has little opportunity to voice concern via traditional democratic institutions.
That this issue has exploded over the past month is less indicative of opportunism by an inward-looking, over-represented regional parliament, and more indicative of a severe democratic deficit within the EU. Had citizens, their organizations and their elected leaders (at all levels of government) been involved in negotiations from the deal’s inception, it may have fared better. Conversely, if CETA or TTIP do not garner wide approval, perhaps this is an indication that they should not exist –at least not across all EU member states, and in their current forms.
Beyond the pros and cons of individual trade agreements, what this debacle has exposed is the severe inability of the EU to generate democratic consensus. Rather than engaging and empowering constituencies, the EU manufactures false consent by avoiding consultation. Where agreement never truly existed, it is not likely to arise, boding poorly for the final ratification of CETA in the coming months, not to mention for TTIP.