If you needed proof that trade agreements are just an excuse to hand big business power at our expense, look no further than Ceta, a deal between the EU and Canada
As the great powers gathered in Japan for last week’s G7 summit, a series of massive trade deals were under attack from all sides. And yet, from Donald Trump to Jeremy Corbyn, there is a recognition that “trade” has become little more than a synonym for big business to take ever more control of society.
The US-Europe deal TTIP (the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) is the best known of these so-called “new generation” trade deals and has inspired a movement. More than 3 million Europeans have signed Europe’s biggest petition to oppose TTIP, while 250,000 Germans took to the streets of Berlin last autumn to try to bring this deal down. A new opinion poll shows only 18% of Americans and 17% of Germans support TTIP, down from 53% and 55% just two years ago.
But TTIP is not alone. Its smaller sister deal between the EU and Canada is called Ceta (the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement). Ceta is just as dangerous as TTIP; indeed it’s in the vanguard of TTIP-style deals, because it’s already been signed by the European commission and the Canadian government. It now awaits ratification over the next 12 months.
The one positive thing about Ceta is that it has already been signed and that means that we’re allowed to see it. Its 1,500 pages show us that it’s a threat to not only our food standards, but also the battle against climate change, our ability to regulate big banks to prevent another crash and our power to renationalise industries.
Like the US deal, Ceta contains a new legal system, open only to foreign corporations and investors. Should the British government make a decision, say, to outlaw dangerous chemicals, improve food safety or put cigarettes in plain packaging, a Canadian company can sue the British government for “unfairness”. And by unfairness this simply means they can’t make as much profit as they expected. The “trial” would be held as a special tribunal, overseen by corporate lawyers.
The European commission has made changes to this “corporate court” system that it believes makes it fairer. But researchers have found it would make no difference to the dozens of cases that have been brought against countries in recent years under similar systems. Canada itself has fought and lost numerous cases from US corporations under the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) – for example, for outlawing carcinogenic chemicals in petrol, reinvesting in local communities and halting the devastation of quarries. Under Ceta, such cases are on their way here.
The whole purpose of Ceta is to reduce regulation on business, the idea being that it will make it easier to export. But it will do far more than that. Through the pleasant-sounding “regulatory cooperation”, standards would be reduced across the board on the basis that they are “obstacles to trade”. That could include food safety, workers’ rights and environmental regulation.
Just consider financial regulation. The ability of governments to control banks and financial markets would be further impaired. Limiting the growth of banks that have become “too big to fail” could land a government in a secret tribunal.
Indeed the onslaught has already started. Tar sands oil is one of the most environmentally destructive fossil fuels in the world, and the majority of this oil is extracted in Alberta, Canada. There is currently little tar sands in use in the EU, but that’s changing. When the EU proposed prohibitive new regulations to effectively stop tar sands flowing into Europe, Canada used Ceta as a bargaining chip to block the proposal. If Ceta passes, that decision will be locked in – a disaster for climate change.
Finally, through something called a “ratchet clause”, current levels of privatisation would be “locked in” on any services not specifically exempted. If Canadian or EU governments want to bring certain services back into public ownership, they could be breaking the terms of the agreement.
So why have so few people heard of Ceta? Largely because Canadians and Europeans think they’re quite alike. They don’t fear the takeover of their economy in the way they do when signing a trade deal with the US. But this is a big mistake, because these trade deals are not about Europeans versus Americans or Canadians. They are about big business versus citizens.
If you needed proof that modern trade agreements are actually nothing more than an excuse to hand big business power at our expense, you need look no further than Ceta. No wonder the public outcry is growing, and opposition to TTIP is spilling over to the Canadian deal.
When Ceta goes to the EU council (of all EU governments) for ratification in late June, Romania – which is in dispute with Canada over visa issues – has threatened to veto it. The Walloon parliament voted a critical motion on this deal that could tie the hands of the Belgian government and force its abstention. The Dutch parliament has also passed a motion rejecting provisional application of the deal, which would allow it to be implemented before parliament had a chance to vote on it.
David Cameron takes the most aggressive position on Ceta – not only supporting it entirely but pushing for provisional application in the UK. On this basis, Ceta could take effect in Britain early next year without a Westminster vote. In fact, even if the British parliament voted Ceta down, the corporate court system would still stay in effect for three years. Cameron’s Brexit rebels are not going to like that much.
The G7’s problems show that many of us have recognised that trade deals have made the world a playground for the super-rich – they are part of our staggeringly unequal economy. But the G7 is unable to think beyond the interests of the world’s elite. It’s up to us to reclaim our democracy as citizens, and the movements against TTIP and Ceta are the frontline.