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'Ceta has a corporate driven agenda': What Ireland could learn from the tiny region of Wallonia

“The Irish government is the chief cheerleader for this trade agenda,” writes Matt Carthy, who firmly believes it is doing Irish people a disservice.

Matt Carthy

THE RECENT MACHINATIONS of CETA negotiations have seen more twists and turns than a Lee Child novel.

Maybe not as exciting. But certainly more important.

Seán Kelly described them as a ‘hullabaloo’.

That is a condescending and yet enlightening revelation of the attitude of CETA supporters.

The CETA (Comprehensive Economic & Trade Agreement) deal with Canada is an important element of a European Commission trade agenda that has led to fierce opposition across the EU.

The best known element of this agenda is the TTIP deal, still being negotiated with the United States of America.

CETA, TTIP’s little brother, is nevertheless an important part of the commission’s trade programme.

The plan was to get CETA ratified as speedily as possible, with as little public debate as possible, so that TTIP could then be more easily sold to the European people.

The idea was that Europeans like Canadians, like free trade, so then surely they won’t pay much head to a free trade deal with Canada.

The difficulties, from the commission’s point of view, was that a coalition of the most unlikely bedfellows (comprising of farmers, trade unions, environmentalists, small and medium business organisations, progressive political parties, even celebrity chefs) have been explaining to people across Europe that CETA and TTIP aren’t free trade deals in the traditional sense.

They are not harmless concepts.

Belgium EU Canada Trade Demonstrators protest against international trade agreements TTIP and CETA in front of EU headquarters in Brussels this week Source: AP/Press Association Images

At the heart of this trade agenda is an Investment Court process, basically a mechanism for large multi-national corporations to sue governments for enacting legislation that impacts on their profits.

The Investment Court cannot be used by citizens or domestic companies and it is rightly viewed as an undemocratic vehicle for wealthy vested interests to undermine the ability of lawmakers to regulate for the welfare of citizens, communities and the environment.

Legal advice that I commissioned suggests that such a court would conflict with the Irish constitution.

Proponents hoped that by ratifying a CETA deal that included provision for an Investment Court would make it more difficult for people to oppose a TTIP deal with the same provisions.

Under huge pressure from civic society the commission eventually agreed that CETA would be considered a mixed agreement meaning that it would have to be voted on in every national parliament.

But, and this is a big but, they then said that they would also have it ‘provisionally applied’ whereby they would start to implement the deal (or at least most elements of it, not including the Investment court) before parliaments actually voted on it.

Confused yet?  And EU leaders still wonder why we think there is a democratic deficit.

So, in order to provisionally ratify CETA, each government just had to agree, behind closed doors, to give the green light.

It was this first step that led to the recent deliberations.

Because different governments have different ways of deciding how they position themselves at EU council level on these matters.

For example, the Irish government just does what the commission asks of them without any recourse to the Dáil or, as in this instance, in direct contravention to the stated position of the Seanad.

Belgium, on the other hand, has a different system. It permits regional parliaments to block a Minister from signing up to things that they feel are bad for their regions.

In the case of CETA three regions, particularly Wallonia, said no.

That was their right within the rules as set by the European treaties.

As a small country that could easily find ourselves isolated on a matter of political importance in the future, our government should have defended and respected the Belgian political process, just as we would want others to respect ours.

Instead, our government representatives dismissed their position as a ‘hullaballoo’ and watched as European leaders mounted severe pressure on Belgian and Wallonian representatives.

Their attitude and their behaviour in the past week in symbolic of everything that is wrong with the EU trade agenda.

It is founded on secrecy and a belief that the democratic process is an inconvenience to be avoided when possible.

It is a corporate driven agenda. There’s nothing wrong in making decisions that are good for business so long as it’s actually as good for small and medium domestic companies, as much as it is for large multi-national corporations.

CETA and TTIP firmly skew the balance towards the latter.

PA-17617376 Source: Niall Carson

The Irish government is the chief cheerleader for this trade agenda. But, they refuse to engage in real debate.

Minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor has consistently refused to meet me – and others with similar concerns – to discuss these issues, nor would her predecessor Richard Bruton.

The majority of Irish MEPs are opposed to these deals.

The government ignored the Seanad resolution which called on them not to sign CETA.

They have never brought it to the Dáil floor for a proper discussion.

There has been no real analysis carried out regarding the potential impact CETA could have on the Irish economy.

For one example, CETA will see an additional 50,000 tonnes of Canadian beef entering the European market.

It is impossible to imagine that this won’t impact Irish beef farmers and the prices they get for their produce.

But how large will the impact be? The government has never bothered to find out.

Fine Gael’s European Parliament group, the EPP and Fianna Fáil’s ALDE has even come together to block European Parliament committees from preparing reports or opinions on the CETA impacts for their respective committees.

The solution to the current impasse, according to Fianna Fáil’s ALDE partners, is actually to remove any say for national parliaments on trade agreements at all.

By adopting such positions they are doing Ireland and the wider European Union a huge disservice.

A recent study by Tufts University, using the UN economic model, has shown that CETA will lead to a reduction of the labour income share, wage compression, job losses and net losses in GDP.

It has also shown that the economic model used by the EU, which assumes full employment and no negative impact on income distribution, ignores all the major risks of deeper liberalisation.

CETA will undermine European protections for workers and the environment.

Millions of people believe that CETA, just like TTIP, will be damaging and dangerous to jobs, farming, consumer rights and democracy across the EU.

By ignoring their concerns, by dismissing and ridiculing their arguments, by describing the democratic process of a country as a ‘hullabaloo’ they are, in fact, simply compounding the disconnect of citizens from the political system and from the EU.

The more people have learned about the EU’s trade agenda, the more likely it is that they will be opposed to it.

That is why there has been so much secrecy and so many attempts to avoid debate.  It’s not good enough.

We are at a turning point in the evolution of the EU.

Leaders must decide whether they will communicate and dialogue with citizens, regions, even nations in a framework based on equality and respect.

They must decide whether they will adopt a new, progressive, ethical and citizen-centred trade policy.

Their actions over the past week suggest that’s not where they’re heading.

Whatever they decide they should know that the battle against CETA, TTIP and the wider EU trade agenda is not over.

In many ways, it’s just beginning.

More: ‘Hullabaloo over EU’s best trade deal in history makes no sense’, says Irish MEP

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Matt Carthy

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