The signing of Ceta on Sunday has been hailed as a victory for those who support free trade, but its progress through the EU's 38 national and regional parliaments is not a foregone conclusion. For starters, it has already been rejected by the Irish Seanad. Refusal to accept the deal at face value is not confined to our senators. Signing of the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement (Ceta) was delayed by Belgium's regional Wallonian parliament, which held it up for six days, eventually settling for clarifications being added to the 1600 page document.
Ceta is one of two new-generation trade deals that were negotiated in secret between Europe and the Americas of late. The Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a US-EU trade deal, hit regulatory stumbling blocks that have stalled its progress completely, for now. Over three million Europeans signed a petition opposing TTIP and 250,000 Germans demonstrated last Autumn against both it and Ceta. Unfortunately, the only parliaments in Europe where either Ceta or TTIP have been debated are Belgium and Ireland. Europe's politicians are pushing ahead in the face of significant public opposition.
There are many reasons why so many people are fearful of these trade deals, which have much in common, but two stand out. Firstly, both would open markets to companies from either trade bloc, which could mean a lowering of Europe's high food and environmental standards. European markets would be flooded with cheap goods and services, but not just from Canada. Other multinationals with offices in Canada could use Ceta to access Europe. In fact, farmers on both sides are worried about the impact the deal will have on prices and competition. The Canadian National Farmers' Union has said: “CETA impinges on the expressed wishes of Canadians to use procurement particularly for, but not limited to, food as a mechanism to support locally valuable economic activities. This is profoundly undemocratic, and in the case of food procurement, contrary to food security and food sovereignty.”
Secondly, and most worryingly, the creation of a new Investor Court System (ICS) to deal with trade disputes would set a precedent whereby corporate interests could sue governments for taking safety or environmental measures, that were perceived to cost those businesses money. This is allowed under numerous US-led free trade agreements and has had serious outcomes. When Ecuador declined to renew Occidental Petroleum's oil exploration contract they were fined $3.2 billion for loss of future earnings under the terms of the US-Ecuador bilateral investment treaty (BIT). The arbitration court ruled against the Ecuadorian government and ordered it to pay $1.77 billion in damages. Similar cases include Veolia taking a case against Egypt for raising its minimum wage. In effect, this kind of court stymies governments who might wish to improve the lot of their people, because they are made fearful of upsetting big businesses who could sue them for lost earnings. The idea is chilling indeed.
The future of Ceta is not assured however, because as more citizens of both countries find out about the deal, which after all has only entered the public discourse in the last few months, they are bound to discover its distasteful elements and seek to derail or renegotiate it. The secrecy that surrounded Ceta has been blown open and people are angry they were not consulted.
Ireland has a great chance to play a crucial part in moulding an acceptable alternative to Ceta, that will genuinely benefit the people of the EU and Canada, without unduly favouring corporations. Our Seanad has led the way, now for the Dáil to follow up on the bravery of its stance on fracking. How amazing it would be if our cobbled-together minority cabinet were the ones to achieve this great victory on behalf of all of Europe.