CETA: EU Council signs away democracy but we, the people, have the last say

For the past few weeks, I have been following more closely than usual the latest developments on CETA, the ‘trade agreement’ between the EU and Canada. It has only been possible to do this because things have been quiet on the fracking front. In England, faced with a fractured democracy, campaign groups are becoming increasingly creative and well organised. In Ireland, the Parliament has backed a Bill calling for an outright ban, meaning it progresses to the next legislative stage. Aside from having had to assist with a Twitterstorm, write to elected representatives and keep others updated with developments, there has been little else to do. Elsewhere in Europe, there has only been positive news to share of late: Poland’s last frackers pulling out and BNK Petroleum relinquishing another licence in Spain.

How CETA facilitates fracking

It is encouraging to see communities everywhere rising up to stop this dangerous industry from getting its drill bits in the ground. With corporate power grabs CETA and TTIP on the horizon, this is probably more important than many may yet realise. Buried within the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement between the EU and Canada is a dangerous provision which would allow investors to sue a government should it introduce any legislation hurting a corporation’s future profits, such as a ban on fracking. Below a short video explaining in greater detail what this entails.

This harmful investor-state dispute settlement mechanism has now been rebranded the ‘Investment Court System’. A change of name, however, does not render its implications any significantly less harmful as reports by Corporate Europe Observatory and Greenpeace make clear. Make no mistake: if CETA is approved, our democratically-elected governments will be held to ransom by vampire multinationals. In the coming months, communities who have won the fight against fracking — for now — and those still fighting — will need to ramp up their resistance against CETA to remain frack free.

If we fail to stop CETA, which is essentially TTIP by the backdoor as a Public Citizen briefing explains, we face a future where the rights of corporations take precedence over those of communities. This is already commonplace in the United States. As CELDF attorney Thomas Linze remarks in an interview with Chris Hedges (see link below): “It doesn’t matter what we want at the local level, it doesn’t matter that we don’t want fracking (…) because we’re under a system of law that doesn’t care what we want as a community.”

Is this the kind of future we want in Europe? Local democracy is already being trampled on in the UK where central government ruled last month in favour of fracking company Cuadrilla, overriding a decision by Lancashire County Council who had rejected by democratic vote the company’s application to frack at Preston New Road.

Existing fracking bans such as that in France face a genuine threat if CETA is ratified. According to a report by the Transnational Institute, under the agreement’s ‘negative listing’ approach (i.e. there is free market access for all investments and investors except when explicitly stated otherwise), Bulgaria has reserved its ban on fracking but France, which has a similar ban, has taken no such reservation.

Trade agreements can also produce a regulatory chill effect, i.e. governments or institutions fail to introduce regulations even before an agreement enters into force. In January 2014, going against the advice of its own legal service and the results of its own public consultation, the EU Commission issued non-binding guidance on fracking instead of a Directive as expected. In a letter to EU institutions ahead of the announcement, civil society groups questioned how investors would benefit from this non-binding framework.

In April, the German parliament rejected a motion calling for an outright ban on fracking. Two months later, against the backdrop of the Euro 2016 football championships, a long-awaited vote on a regulatory package facilitating the industry was rushed through parliament. ExxonMobil has welcomed the regulations.

German anti-fracking groups also campaign against CETA and TTIP

In Scotland too, where a moratorium is currently in place, concerns have been expressed about CETA. With the Scottish government having already delayed the publication of six expert reports on the safety and science of fracking, it is not inconceivable that CETA could produce a regulatory chill effect. Will the Scottish government introduce a blanket ban as communities have been demanding or will it continue to leave the door ajar to fracking exploration?

Even in Ireland, where a Bill to ban fracking has passed its first main hurdle, it has not been without hiccups. At the eleventh hour, the Minister for Climate Change introduced an amendment referencing a study which has been discredited by campaign groups. Fortunately, public outcry together with fierce criticism from opposition parties resulted in the amendment being withdrawn — for now, at least. Fianna Fáil TD Eamon Scanlon remarked that it could be introduced again at a later stage. During the parliamentary debate, referring to the threat of CETA, Independent Socialist TD Clare Daly asserted that communities shouldn’t put the placards away just yet. There is genuine concern that the Irish government’s support for CETA has the potential to prevent the introduction of an outright fracking ban.

With some government manoeuvres revealing a willingness to keep fracking investors happy rather than protect communities, it is clear that the regulatory chill effects of CETA and TTIP are already being felt.

Walloon resistance to CETA

Although resistance to CETA has been strong across Europe with mass protests in Germany, Austria, France, and most recently the Netherlands, and there are now over 2,000 CETA-TTIP free zones, only one region succeeded in holding up the signing ceremony due to take place on October 27: Wallonia. Because of Belgium’s constitutional system, Wallonia is one of only a few regions in Europe with the same constitutional right as national parliaments to veto a trade agreement. We should commend the Belgian civil society groups whose efforts led the Walloon Parliament to hold 18 months of debates and expert hearings. We also need to learn from their experience for the next steps of the campaign.

Some have little respect for Wallonia’s courageous stand, however. Irish MEP Séan Kelly, of the right-wing European People’s Party group, has dismissed the region’s stand for democracy as a ‘hullabaloo’. Then at Sunday’s press conference, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker went so far as to reprimand Belgium, saying “it needed to change how it dealt with international treaties.” President of the centre-right CdH party Benoît Lutgen, who has strongly opposed CETA, reacted with outrage on national television, saying Wallonia was ready to “pull the plug”, if necessary, meaning it could veto the deal when it comes back to regional parliaments for ratification. We should all be outraged at how these EU elites hold in contempt decisions reached by democratically-elected parliaments.

And if enough digs hadn’t been made at Wallonia already, in a speech at a gala dinner in Hamburg last week, EU Commissioner for Digital Economy & Society Günther Oettinger lambasted the region’s stance. Oettinger said Wallonia was a “micro-region, run by communists, that blocks all Europe”, adding that this was “not acceptable”. Magnette called Oettinger’s comments “unworthy of an EU Commissioner”.

Can we question EU policies without being labelled anti-EU?

In recent weeks, we have heard repeated ad-nauseum how EU credibility depends on closing this deal. As Greenpeace points out in its CETA Spin Unspun Guide, EU credibility actually depends on fulfilling the commitments to the peoples of Europe laid out in the Treaty on the European Union, with “decisions […] taken as openly as possible and as closely as possible to the citizen”. Greenpeace concludes that growing public concern over trade policy is “a clear indication that EU credibility in fact depends on the rejection of CETA.” Difficult to disagree with that analysis.

At Sunday’s protest against CETA at the EU Council, Raf Verbeke of the Belgian civil society group Alliance D19–20 made the point how the usually europhile Belgium had never seen this level of resistance to any European project. That in itself speaks volumes.

I have always been an ardent pro-European. Growing up an island, I saw the EU as a positive project uniting a continent — ‘unity in diversity’ as the motto goes, a project enabling the freedom of movement to live, work and study in other EU countries. I have enjoyed this freedom to live and work in Italy, France, Germany and Belgium. I have also been fortunate enough to benefit from various EU grants to study and gain work experience. Perhaps experiencing the benefits of the EU directly clouds your judgement somewhat.

I had never questioned anything about the EU project until just after I had enrolled on a Master’s degree in European Studies in 2008. This was the same year Ireland held a referendum on the Treaty of Lisbon, the outcome of which was a ‘no’ vote. I remember when, some months later, Sweden’s Margot Wallström, then EU Commissioner for Institutional Relations and Communication Strategy, told us that we would need to vote again. The question on my mind was: “What part of ‘no’ don’t they understand?” Following the Walloon Parliament’s valiant efforts to say ‘no’ to CETA, it too has probably been asking the same question.

From there on in, I began to remove my rose-tinted spectacles, coming to the stark realisation that the EU wasn’t quite as perfect as I had always perceived it to be. Where I was studying— incidentally the same institution where Paul Magnette was a professor, the Institute for European Studies at the Université Libre de Bruxelles — questioning the EU was rarely encouraged.

Given my own background, to have some equating opposition to CETA with opposition to the EU grinds my gears frankly. Here are three further reasons why such a comparison is misguided, in my view.

First, even Magnette has questioned the excessive powers CETA would grant to multinationals. One of my previous lecturers, Professor of Political Science and Dean of the Social Sciences Faculty at the ULB, Jean-Michel De Waele, spoke to Euractiv about Magnette’s pro-European background. His europhile stance was also noted in an article by Irish Senator Alice-Mary Higgins. That such a pro-European figure has been such a fierce critic of CETA should surely ring alarm bells for the European establishment.

Second, CETA has little to do with furthering the European project in the interest of its citizens, but more to do with giving carte blanche to multinational corporations to disregard local democracy as this report by the Transnational Institute details. As Magnette himself has said, “being isolated from one’s citizens is as bad as being isolated diplomatically.” Strong words which the EU institutions would do well to heed.

Third, even the Walloon branch of the pro-European centre-right CdH (Christian Democrat) party— after months of hearings— decided CETA was a bad deal. The fact that Juncker has now taken aim at this party, belonging to the same political family as his own, is laughable and only further exposes the arrogance of the EU elites. De Waele tweeted that the EU Commission President had probably “drunk too much” by attacking one of the most pro-European and federalist forces of the EU.

ULB Political Science Professor Jean-Michel De Waele reacts to remarks by the EU Commission President

The EU’s determination to foist a neoliberal agenda on democratically-elected regions and governments will only serve to further damage the credibility of the European project, in my opinion. Even Marianne Dony, Law Professor at the Institute for European Studies and one of its former Presidents — hardly a eurosceptic — expressed a similar view on Belgian radio recently.

Protesting a silent coup d’état

Sunday saw the EU Council’s signing of CETA, only a few days after originally scheduled. Heads of State gave their rubber stamp to the deal without any great fanfare, not even turning up at the ceremony. Confirmed only two days before, Sunday’s summit left little time to mobilise significant numbers to protest. Nevertheless, approximately 150 of us showed up on Sunday morning outside the ‘Justus Lipsius’ EU Council building.

TTIP Game Over had organised a sit-in involving a lock-on in front of the Council building. Some activists tried to enter the building but, predictably, were violently prevented from doing so as the footage and image below show. Anyone under the illusion that the EU institutions serve our interests should ask themselves why there is a need to subject ordinary people to such violence for only trying to make their voices heard.

The police and military presence continued into the afternoon. Behind a barbed wire barricade stood Belgian police armed with giant shields as if ready to go into the battle, behind them masked military bearing machine guns. Clearly an atmosphere to incite fear and intimidation. On our side of the barricade, however, were friendly clowns, cheerful drummers, young and old chanting with heart and soul, banging pots and pans — all of us determined to make enough noise so that those inside could hear the din of resistance to the signing away of democracy.

Some of our chants included: “This is what democracy looks like.”, “Trudeau, rentres chez toi, le CETA on n’en veut pas.” (“Trudeau, go home, we don’t want CETA.”). And as the press conference took place indoors, we broke out into loud cries of “Shame on you.” and “Honte sur vous.”

I found it fascinating to observe the reaction of the police and the military to our resistance. In the eyes of some, you could see they empathised with our cause; the clowns who paraded at regular intervals along the barbed wire barricade managed to make one or two officers force a smile, one even laughed. I could sense that some of them would have preferred not to be on that side of the barricade.

Those attending Sunday’s protest were of all ages, all backgrounds, though predominantly middle class — all clearly conscious of how the EU no longer serves our interests, but those of corporations. Several signs drew attention to the death of democracy.

A recent article hinted at how democracy is now invited to the table following Magnette’s negotiations. This reminded me of comments made by Helen Slottje at an EU Parliament event last year. Slottje — a US lawyer and winner of a Goldman Environmental Prize for her work on opposing fracking — remarked how certain grassroots groups, in an attempt “to keep their seat at the table”, were keen at first to engage with more established groups who believed it impossible to achieve an outright fracking ban. Slottje commented: “What they didn’t realise was that they were the dinner. That there was no sitting at the table. That they should be kicking over the table and fighting.” In short, groups wanting to protect communities do not make compromises; only banning fracking outright could be an acceptable demand. Like there can be no safe fracking, there can be no safe CETA either.

Although I can acknowledge that Magnette has managed to achieve some concessions in his negotiations with the EU technocrats and that the Walloon resistance will now inspire other parliaments to lend greater scrutiny to CETA, as citizens, our demands need to remain non-negotiable. We need to stand united in our demand to stop CETA outright and not support a new, improved version of a deal which was negotiated behind closed doors and puts the interests of big business before those of people and planet. Ideally, of course, we need to dismantle the entire corporate state as the new feature documentary We the People 2.0 calls for.

At Sunday’s protest, I felt both happy and sad. Happy to be among so many like-minded people who had shown up to make their voices heard. Sad that our governments and EU institutions have become mere facilitators of a corporate-driven agenda. Saddened by how the EU Commission technocrats have delivered ultimatum after ultimatum to Paul Magnette. Saddened by how our governments submitted to the EU Council their signatures to an agreement that hadn’t even been debated in most parliaments. Saddened by how the EU Parliament — where CETA heads to next — is made up predominantly of political groups who dance to the tune of big business. It is becoming all the more apparent that many of our legislators and elected representatives have been bought off by the highest bidder, enslaved by a system based on power and greed while many of us, enslaved by the very same system, are too busy trying to make ends meet to hold them to account.

Towards the end of Sunday’s protest, Raf Verbeke called what we were witnessing as historic, a silent coup d’état. How did it come to this? How have we allowed our institutions and democratic processes to become so influenced by corporate interests? We, the people, need to take the power back, or as a banner at Sunday’s protest put it: ‘reboot democracy’.

Next stop for CETA: European Parliament

Sunday’s signature ceremony is largely symbolic and not the end. CETA now faces a vote in the European Parliament where it needs to be backed by a majority of MEPs, then it needs to be ratified by 38 national and regional parliaments. A vote at a parliamentary committee stage is expected to take place this January, followed by a February plenary vote where all MEPs will have their say. If ratified by the EU Parliament, 90% of CETA will enter into force provisionally. Now is the time to contact our MEPs to make sure they will represent our concerns.

To be brutally honest — and, let’s face it, we need to be honest if we are to take meaningful action — the odds of a majority of MEPs voting down the deal are stacked against us at present.

Judging from the statements of their leaders, even the more progressive groups in the EU Parliament, such as ALDE (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats) and the S&D (Socialists and Democrats) think CETA is a good deal. Following Wallonia’s resistance to signing the agreement, ALDE leader Guy Verhofstadt even suggested that the ratification of trade deals should be reclassified as an EU-only competence, drawing criticism from politicians and civil society alike.

Belgian Socialist MEP Marie Arena disagrees with Verhofstadt’s suggestion
Belgian centre-right party CdH reacts to Verhofstadt’s suggestion

EU Parliament President Social Democrat Martin Schulz has spoken consistently in favour of the deal. Schulz’s group — headed by Italy’s Gianni Pittella — is divided, however, with French and Belgian MEPs more opposed to CETA than UK and Scandinavian MEPs. It is unlikely, though, that the group as a whole will reject the agreement given that Pittella called for a swift compromise to be found during the Walloon impasse.

As for the European People’s Party (EPP) — the Parliament’s largest political group which holds 216 of 751 seats — it strongly backs the deal, claiming it will be positive for jobs and growth. The reality, of course, is somewhat different as a recent paper by Tufts University shows. Interestingly, Wallonia’s centre-right CdH party, which belongs to the EPP family, voted against CETA before it was bullied into supporting an improved version. Perhaps there is some leeway to influence politicians from other centre-right parties if groups concerned about CETA’s negative impacts, particularly on SMEs and agriculture, become as vocal as they did in Wallonia.

In any event, it is obvious we face an uphill struggle to win over enough MEPs to reject the deal. Sending emails or signing petitions just won’t cut it this time. We need to get thinking outside the box to find more creative, highly visible, effective means of holding MEPs to task. And we can’t just hope they will do the right thing either; we have to employ whatever peaceful means necessary to ensure the outcome we want to see.

Composition of the European Parliament (2014–2019)

On Saturday night, I attended a debate in Brussels where NGOs faced off Business Europe and Pascal Kerneis of the European Services Forum. I paid particular attention to what Kerneis said, as he is very close to EU decision makers. Those who have watched the documentary The Brussels Business will be familiar with who he is and what he does.

Speaking to a packed venue, Kerneis made two remarks regarding the European Parliament: 1) that it will say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to CETA and 2) that it is an elected body. He made both with a tone of smugness as if the vote was already in the bag. No doubt our MEPs, in particular the leaders of the political groups, have been subject to intense lobbying by pro-CETA interests. Have we been equally vocal? Are our elected representatives going to serve our interests over those of big business? And if they aren’t, then what are we going to do about it?

Time to ramp up the resistance

At Sunday’s protest, we stayed until the press conference inside the Council building had ended, banging our pots and pans and chanting our slogans. To make the point that we, the people, have the last say.

Sometimes, though, it feels that our voice is too small compared to the powers we are up against which brings me to a point made by Raf Verbeke at the end of Sunday’s protest. He said it’s now time to broaden our shoulders and grow the movement ahead of the next stage: the European Parliament vote. He’s right. We can only ensure that we, the people, have the last say if enough of us speak out. What are we going to do to prevent corporations from dictating the right of our communities to say ‘no’ to dangerous industries like fracking? While politicians make grand speeches and declarations which may give false hope that there is more political opposition than there actually is, we need to ensure that we are as many and as active as possible to defeat what is nothing other than a corporate power grab dressed up as a trade deal.

If you’re not yet involved in the fightback, here are some suggestions on how you can take action:

  • Get involved in the upcoming TTIP Game Over days of action (Nov. 3–5).
  • Join your local action group. Even if you are unable to attend regular meetings, make sure you’re signed up to your group’s newsletter or mailing list so you don’t miss any important announcements or calls to action.
  • Declare your community a CETA free zone. You can find a very useful campaign toolkit here and a model TTIP motion here which can easily be adapted for CETA. Declaring your region a CETA free zone will help reach out to groups and associations who have more clout to influence MEPs ahead of the EU Parliament vote and help attract more press coverage.
  • Check out the www.cetacheck.eu website to see what your MEPs think about CETA. Use the interactive tool to question MEPs and rate their replies.
  • Write to your MEPs using a pen and paper, make it personal. Politicians pay more attention to written communications with an individual touch rather than to standard emails.
  • Write a letter to the editor or an article in your local paper naming and shaming any local MEPs who back CETA. Make it clear that they risk losing their seat at the next election if they choose to ignore constituents’ concerns. (This works very well, in my own experience.)
  • Organise a debate with MEPs in your community.
  • Stage peaceful direct actions at the offices of pro-CETA MEPs or at events they attend.

Whatever you do, do something. Because time is running out.

As Drew Dellinger’s epic poem Hieroglyphic Stairway asks: 
What did you do while the planet was plundered? 
What did you do when the earth was unravelling?
Surely you did something when the seasons started failing as the mammals, reptiles, birds were all dying?
Did you fill the streets with protest when democracy was stolen?

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