CHAMPAGNE was no doubt flowing as EU and Canadian politicians patted each other on the back yesterday, having snatched the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) from the jaws of defeat.
Concessions have been wrung from the treaty by the government of Wallonia in Belgium, which had threatened to scuttle the deal.
In the eyes of desiccated Thatcherite throwback Lord Tebbit, the EU’s inability to secure the corporate treaty with Canada sooner was evidence of its blundering incompetence. For Blairite free-marketeer Lord Reid, it was scandalous that “seven years of work have been scuppered by a sub-state institution” like Wallonia. He will no doubt be relieved that the agreement is back on.
But claims it was undemocratic for the region of Wallonia to stand in the way of the treaty rest on the wholly mendacious argument that the rest of Europe wants it. There is no popular demand for Ceta — quite the opposite.
While the European Commission refused to allow a European Citizens Initiative on the issue (a mechanism supposedly enabling citizens of EU member states to lobby the commission directly), the Stop TTIP campaign petition requesting that both TTIP and Ceta be dropped signed up more than three million people.
People are rightly suspicious of treaties thrashed out in secret by corporate lawyers.
And everything that has been leaked confirms the suspicion that these deals are designed to entrench the power of business and diminish that of our elected representatives. Their prioritisation of the “right to trade” over all other rights will not merely lower safety standards and threaten public services (by opening them up to foreign competition). It also makes a mockery of our governments’ supposed commitment to tackle climate change. “Equal access” to markets for foreign and domestic suppliers prevents legislation to favour local or sustainable produce by the application of subsidies or tariffs.
The investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) clause and the private courts it will establish — enabling businesses to sue governments if they believe their profits will be hurt by legislation — creates an appalling precedent, by which any law, however needed in order to ensure the safety of workers or consumers, or to protect the environment, can be challenged simply because it inconveniences the right of corporations to make a killing.
This is not some hypothetical risk. It is exactly how these clauses are already used across the world — from Australia, where big tobacco took the government to court over plain packaging, through to Ecuador, which was sued by oil giant Chevron for trying to protect its rainforest from oil spills, to Germany, where the Hamburg authorities dropped legislation to tackle pollution in the river Elbe when energy firm Vattenfall took legal action to stop its coal-fired power stations being subjected to new regulations. Wallonia’s government says its concerns have been addressed, but the truth is somewhat less encouraging.
Belgium has committed to “assess the social and environmental impact” of Ceta, and won the right to ask the European Court of Justice (ECJ) to rule on whether ISDS is compatible with EU law.
The ECJ — in cases such as Laval, Ruffert and Viking — has consistently prioritised the right of companies to make profits over the right of workers to organise. It cannot be relied on to protect democracy from big business now. The left must step up its campaign against Ceta, building cross-border alliances to maximise European popular resistance. Within Britain, pressure must be put on the Labour Party to shore up a position of total opposition to the treaty and to prevent the government from ratifying it here.