In or Out, the EU-Canada trade deal would mean a massive corporate power grab
10 June 2016
Trade deals are looming large in the referendum debate here in the UK. The public at home and across Europe are increasingly asking questions about whom they are made for and why such secrecy surrounds them. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) talks began entirely hidden from public scrutiny with the backing of European prime ministers. It took MEPs like myself and my Green colleagues to protest inside the European Parliament just to gain basic access to EU negotiation documents.
But the fight around trade deals is not a fight against the EU. We know this because many of the provisions negotiators want to include in these deals are fully supported by European governments, including our own, usually at the behest of big business. In fact many of the worst ideas have been taken from bilateral agreements that European countries have signed in the past.
Strangely, one of the models that the Brexiteers are using to add some detail to their somewhat foggy idea of what a British future might look like outside the Union is that of Canada. The EU is currently finalising a trade deal with Canada, known as CETA or the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement. This could be a template for what would be on offer for the UK outside the EU. Although surrounded in as much secrecy as TTIP, those in camp Leave believe this sort of deal is the way to go.
Whether in or out, a deal like CETA is not a model we should celebrate. It includes the dropping of tariffs on 97% of products, including on most agricultural goods which will put pressure on already squeezed EU farmers. It pushes for further liberalisation of our public services through jargon-filled mechanisms like the 'negative list' approach, the 'standstill' and 'ratchet' clauses, which combined, make it almost impossible to bring services back under national control. There is even evidence the deal sunk progressive EU climate policy against Canadian tar sands oil during the negotiation period.
More controversially, CETA includes a proposal for an Investment Court System - a minor revision of the highly controversial ISDS or Investor-state dispute settlement clause in TTIP. This is the classic finesse manoeuvre where corporations place themselves above the law by requiring the creation of special courts to hear their grievances involving pesky governments, determined to pass laws in the interests of the people but that might reduce corporate power or profits. Worryingly, including ICS in CETA would allow tens of thousands of Canadian-based US subsidiaries to also take arbitration cases against European countries. This opens the flood gates to challenges against any progressive law or regulation intended to further the public good, from a sugary drinks tax, to support for alternative energy sources.
This is why we tend to see this new round of trade deals as something much more sinister. It's no longer about a simple reduction of tariffs. It's a power grab by corporations seeking to write the rules of the global economy for decades to come.
It is no surprise that those with links to big business on either side of the referendum debate support CETA. There is little evidence that leaving the EU would result in trade deals that benefit ordinary people over big business. In fact, in a drive to increase profit for multinationals at the expense of public policy, it would come as no surprise if the Tories negotiated an even worse trade deal for ordinary people after Brexit.
For Tories the question for the referendum is: what's best for Britain? Or more narrowly still: what is best for Britain's corporate businesses? In these narrow and self-centred terms it seems that remaining inside the single market would be greatly to our national advantage: outside the Union we would be faced with tariffs and our 'trade' in financial services would be severely undermined.
As the EU is the largest consumer market in the world, having a seat at the table to influence the rules on global trade cannot be underestimated. We have little hope of changing deals like CETA for the better by shouting from the side-lines. In Europe, progressive voices are stronger together, and the pressure they have brought has made a clear dent in the wish lists of big business and the Commission's way of doing things. It is certain that more needs to be done, which is why staying in is so important.
If those intent on leaving are holding up CETA as the model for future 'go-it-alone' British trade deals with the world, then the future doesn't look so bright. Corporations are transnational; our resistance to them needs to be too. Retreating to our national borders doesn't solve the problem, nor curb their influence. The EU is the new frontier to fight that fight.
Photo: MEPs from across Europe, including Molly Scott-Cato, protest outside the restricted trade deal reading room after being excluded from it.