By Julia Huentemann, a 1st Year International Relations Student and Editorial Assistant for International Relations Today.
Strasbourg. On 15th February, 2017 the European Parliament ratified the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement between the European Union and Canada, best known by its acronym CETA. According to the EU Commission, this is supposed to be the most modern, advanced and progressive free trade agreement ever constructed, since it goes beyond just removing customs duties and takes people and the environment fully into account. By doing so, it will set a new global standard for future trade agreements.
“It will help to generate growth and jobs by boosting exports, lowering the cost of the inputs businesses need to make their products, offering greater choice for consumers, and upholding the EU’s strict standards for products.” This is how both the European Union and the Canadian government are currently advertising CETA to the public. The underlying optimistic and innovative tone seems quite convincing and implies that the free trade agreement will mean a significant step forward for Canada and the EU.
In his speech, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talked about better incomes for workers, entrepreneurs who will have access to new customers, consumers paying less at the checkout counter, manufacturers who can expand their global reach, and more predictability and transparency for the “engineering, architecture, and information technology” sectors. In short, he said “CETA is a framework for trade that works for everyone”, from the companies level all the way down to consumers.
If CETA is obviously so beneficial, why is it so unpopular among the European public?
There are still many remaining skeptics who forecast that instead of soothing nationalism, the ratification of CETA will actually encourage populist movements across Europe, since the benefits of the trade agreement will disproportionately accrue to upper income earners, leaving working class people behind. If you do some research on the matter, you can easily encounter websites promoting a European-wide petition against CETA and TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), the pending trade deal between the US and the EU, which already caused a lot of unrest recently. Those websites refer to CETA and TTIP as “dirty deals” and is presented as the cause to global poverty, inequality and injustice. But, what exactly sparked this upheaval about TTIP and what does this have to do with CETA?
TTIP negotiations began in February 2015 and, once information was leaked, the content was considered somewhat alarming, especially with regard to TTIP’s ‘regulatory convergence’ agenda which will seek to bring EU standards on environment and food safety closer to those of the US. But US regulations are much less strict, with 70% of all processed foods sold in US supermarkets now containing genetically modified ingredients while the EU does not permit GM food. The same quality gap exists in the environmental standards as well. While the EU’s regulations are stricter towards producers, obliging them to prove a substance’s safety before using it; in the US quite the opposite is the rule: any substance can be used until it is proven unsafe. It does not come surprisingly that, once it was leaked, this information caused some doubts about the benefits of such a trade agreement.
However, what appears to be even more essential is the fact that the process of negotiations has been highly secretive, with nearly all information on negotiations coming from leaked documents or Freedom of Information requests. For the public, who has no say in whether the treaty goes through or not, this issue necessarily raises some questions about the democratic nature of the decision-making processes and thus of their governments’ self-conceptions.
Following TTIP, CETA now raises these same questions, as again the European citizens did not have much of a choice on whether to ratify this agreement or not. Decisions are being taken on behalf of the citizens without even asking or informing them on crucial matters. In the context of the current crises Europe is going through, this could encourage the lurking, constant rise of nationalist populists. Anxieties, be they irrational or not, about jobs being lost to Canada due to competitive advantage foster the dissent towards national governments as well as the EU and at the same time pose the risk of creating a framework for populists to rise.
Only the future can tell whether CETA, TTIP & Co. mean a boon or bane for Europe, because a reliable prognosis seems impossible in our globalised and complex world. But irrespective of future economic effects, and even though such agreements are likely to have very beneficial spillover effects upon political relations, the controversial discussion about the advantages and disadvantages of CETA reveals one aspect very clearly, namely that the EU commission should pay more attention to the concerns of the European civil society when constructing future trade agreements. The fact that more than 3.5 Million people (almost 7% of the European population) have already signed the petition against CETA and TTIP undoubtedly sends a clear message to the EU Commission including all its member states, implying an urge to change policy direction.
 European Commission. Trade; Policy; In focus: Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA). Retrieved 26th February, 2017 from <http://ec.europa.eu/trade/policy/in-focus/ceta/>.
 National Observer. Baloney Meter: Will free trade with the EU benefit everyone in Canada? Retrieved 26th February, 2017 from <http://www.nationalobserver.com/2017/02/23/news/baloney-meter-will-free-trade-eu-benefit-everyone-canada>.
The Independent. What is TTIP? And six reasons why the answer should scare you. Retrieved 27th Feburary, 2017 from <http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/what-is-ttip-and-six-reasons-why-the-answer-should-scare-you-9779688.html>.