The Belgian Prime Minister, the heads of the other 27 member states and EU leaders were almost blocked from signing CETA by a few dozen regional politicians in Belgium.
CETA, a tentative free trade agreement between Canada and the EU, was almost scuppered in October because of a few dozen regional politicians in Belgium. The Walloons, led by their Minister-President, Paul Magnette, grabbed the media spotlight and held Canada and the EU hostage. Many commentators declared the situation fatal, but calmer heads prevailed. On 30th October, CETA was signed by EU leaders and Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada.
Wallonia’s main concern, over the controversial Investment Court System in CETA, was reasonable. Many oppose the ICS, partly because it’s far from clear whether it’s compatible with EU law. And so products of Wallonia’s protests – the European Court of Justice will give their view on the legality of the ICS and further work will be undertaken on ensuring the impartiality of ICS judges – can be seen as a good thing. But come on: the Belgian Prime Minister, the heads of the other 27 member states and EU leaders – the representatives of more than 540 million people — wanted to sign CETA and were almost blocked by a few dozen regional politicians in Belgium, representing around 3.5 million people.
On this occasion, disaster was averted. But some damage will have been done. As the Economist noted, it is because the EU speaks for its Member States that it has credibility as a trade negotiator. This credibility comes into doubt if years of successful negotiations are subject to the whims of obscure politicians. Potential trading partners may decide not to bother.
Some might say this is a good thing. Who likes free trade these days anyway? But agreements such as CETA are important. In creating jobs, boosting exports and lowering the costs of imports they’re a boon for the economy and consumers.
Moving forward, something must be done to disentangle Europe’s prosperity from the constitutional intricacies of member states such as Belgium. Perhaps, as much as European Council decisions normally don’t require unanimous support from member states, a hard won trade agreement like CETA should proceed if supported by the (overwhelming) majority.
For now, and for all the drama that occurred in October, CETA is still a long way away from taking full effect, if it ever does.
In December, it will be the subject of a vote in the democratically elected European Parliament. If it is approved, it is likely to have provisional effect in early 2017. But under current EU arrangements, CETA will not have full effect until it is ratified, on the EU side, by all 28 member states and the Council. In total, any of 38 parliaments will have the power to block ratification – and so the Walloons may still have their day.
If Belgium, blocked by its regional politicians, refuses to ratify CETA, the agreement will “permanently and definitely” fail. And in this case, the “provisional application must be and will be terminated”.
The EU has long been decried as too centralised and undemocratic, but in this case it could do with a bit more autocracy.
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