EU-Canadian trade agreement thrown in doubt by Belgian vote

Ireland has already signed off on deal rejected by one of Belgium’s regional parliaments

Protesting farmers parked tractors outside the Walloon regional parliament in Namur, Belgium as deputies debated the Ceta trade agreement between the EU and Canada. On Friday, lawmakers rejected the deal. Photographer: Reuters/François Lenoir

Protesting farmers parked tractors outside the Walloon regional parliament in Namur, Belgium as deputies debated the Ceta trade agreement between the EU and Canada. On Friday, lawmakers rejected the deal. Photographer: Reuters/François Lenoir

 

Efforts to seal an EU-Canada trade deal are set to intensify this week, after Belgium’s Walloon parliament rejected the ratification of the trade agreement and threw the future of the deal into jeopardy.

On Friday, lawmakers in the French-speaking region of Wallonia voted against the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) between the European Union and Canada.

Under Belgian law, the approval of all five regional parliaments in the country is necessary for the federal government to sign off on Ceta. Negotiations took place over the weekend to strike a compromise.

All EU member states and a number of regional parliaments have to sign off on the trade deal, which was agreed by EU leaders more than two years ago following seven years of negotiations.

Ireland signed off on the provisional application of the agreement last week, after Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation Mary Mitchell O’Connor brought a memo to Cabinet.

A motion by Independent Senator Alice Mary Higgins to stop Ireland signing up to the deal was passed in the Seanad earlier this month after Fianna Fáil abstained from the vote. Sinn Féin and Labour senators voted in favour of the motion.

EU-Canadian summit

The Belgian vote, which threatens to derail the deal, took place as EU trade ministers prepare to meet on Tuesday for a special council meeting on Ceta in Luxembourg. The deal was then expected to be ratified at an EU-Canada summit in Brussels on October 27th, attended by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Officials are also concerned about a ruling last week by the German constitutional court. The court gave the deal a green light but set out a number of conditions, including the right of Germany to opt out of the agreement.

It is understood that Canada is growing increasingly frustrated with setbacks in the ratification process. This could have implications for Britain’s future trade arrangement with the EU, which will need to be ratified by national parliaments.

Ceta is the latest agreement to fall victim to a public backlash against free trade, which is shaping political debate everywhere, from Germany to the United States.

In particular, serious doubts have emerged about the future of TTIP. The controversial EU-US trade deal has been under discussion for more than three years but has run into significant opposition in a number of member states.

Both US presidential election candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, have said they will not support the agreement in its current form.

As officials scramble to salvage Ceta, a group of more than 100 lawyers have called on negotiators to drop controversial rules that would protect investors by allowing them to sue states for losses in certain circumstances.

The so-called ISDS (investor-state dispute settlement) mechanisms have long been the most controversial aspects of both Ceta and the TTIP. While negotiators for Ceta replaced the proposed ISDS mechanism with a new Investment Court System, a joint letter by 101 law professors said this was still insufficient.

Threat to democracy

“The investment protection systems in TTIP and Ceta pose an unnecessary, and grave, threat to democracy and the public interest,” said Nico Krisch of the Graduate Institute, Geneva.

“The tribunal system included in Ceta, and proposed for TTIP, is better than the arbitration provided for in many other investment treaties,” Prof Krisch said. “But it does not eliminate the risk of an excessively broad interpretation of investor rights.”

According to the European Commission, Ceta will remove more than 99 per cent of tariffs currently imposed on trade between the EU and Canada, and will lead to better business opportunities for EU firms in Canada.

Those opposed to the deal say it will lead to a fall in food and environmental standards and jeopardise workers’ rights.