EU-Canada deal must deliver for citizens and not just corporations

Government needs to push for vital changes to Ceta agreement

A demonstration against the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) in Brussels last month. Photograph: Reuters

A demonstration against the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) in Brussels last month. Photograph: Reuters

 

It seems that provisional application of Ceta, the controversial Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement between the EU and Canada, might now be pushed over the line, although a significant question mark still hangs over its final ratification.

The Belgian region of Wallonia has, under great pressure, allowed provisional application to proceed. However, this comes with a clear caveat that Belgium will not proceed with full ratification unless changes are made to controversial investor courts.

The European Commission’s stubborn determination to attach such courts to “new generation” deals such as Ceta to TTIP, remains, I believe, the greatest threat to EU trade policy.

Far from being lone actors in a happy consensus of member states, the Wallonian parliament have, particularly in their objections to these courts, served as a crucial voice for concerns shared by many citizens across Europe.

It is important to note that aside from our own Seanad, Belgium is the only country in Europe where parliamentarians have debated and voted on Ceta. Every other parliament in Europe is still awaiting that opportunity.

In the Seanad, my own motion against the provisional application of Ceta was passed in a significant Government defeat. Austria has expressed serious reservations. The German constitutional court has demanded written legal assurances on the exact scope of provisional application.

However, it is Wallonian prime minister, Paul Magnette, who has fought most bravely for a better deal.

Staunch defender

The small concessions reflected in the sheaf of “declarations” which accompany this week’s signing have not been won by the complacency of governments like Ireland.

However, the bigger ratification process will require debate in every country and the evidence so far suggests that Ceta in its current form doesn’t do particularly well under the light of parliamentary or legal scrutiny. Member states will have to be courageous in demanding change and the European Commission will need to listen.

Veiled in secrecy

When the text was finally made public, environmental and health organisations, food producers, farmers and unions across Europe highlighted many serious and detailed concerns.

The greatest of these is Ceta’s proposed Investor Court System (ICS) which would operate entirely separately from national law and allow corporations to sue states for vast compensation when a new regulation impacts not only on current, but on “future unearned profits”.

While this would be the first time Ireland opened itself up to such a court, similar Investor State Dispute Systems (ISDS) elsewhere have had a “chilling effect” on public policy in areas like health, environment and workers’ rights.

When Ecuador declined to renew Occidental Petroleum’s contract for oil exploration they were fined $3.2 billion. A case was taken by Veolia against minimum wage increases in Egypt. When US president Barack Obama cancelled the KeystoneXL Pipeline due to climate change commitments, TransCanada corporation sued the US for $15 billion in compensation for future unearned profit.

This week the Oireachtas discussed two important Bills on alcohol and fracking. Both seek to introduce regulations for the public good. If Ceta was already in operation, that could come with a prohibitive price tag, as international companies could sue the Irish State for “future unearned profits” lost as a result of such regulations. When Quebec, for example, placed a two-year moratorium on fracking, Lone Pine Corporation sued Canada for $250 million.

Many see ICS as an unacceptable and unnecessary overreach. Both Canada and EU member states have highly sophisticated and developed legal systems. Why then, is there a need to establish this completely separate judicial system?

If Ceta instead refocused on those areas of exchange and tariffs which really matter for our economies, it would be far more likely to meet with successful ratification.

Trade is of course vital for a small country like Ireland but it is important that we move past sloganeering or rubber-stamping and press for good, well designed trade agreements which deliver for citizens and not just corporations.

Over the next few months, Ireland should add its voice to those who are seeking the reopening of the Ceta text, removal of investor courts and a better deal for all. Alice-Mary Higgins is a member of Seanad Éireann

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