March 2017        

EU approves controversial trade deal

Eoghan M. Ó Néill

The EU Parliament has passed the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with Canada, and the elements of the controversial deal may now be provisionally implemented within the month.
     CETA contains almost everything that the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Partnership Agreement (TTIP) threatened. CETA was negotiated not by the national parliaments of EU member-states but in secrecy by unaccountable EU bureaucrats. The role of national governments was to rubberstamp the final agreement—something that the Irish government has been more than happy to do.
     CETA will have an impact on vast areas of our lives, including our environmental protections, our health and education services, and our public housing. It will limit the extent to which the Dáil may legislate. Yet the government has not informed the Irish people of the provisions of CETA, nor will it allow the people any say in its agreement or implementation, let alone an informed one.
     The minister for jobs, Richard Bruton, has stated in the Dáil that it is the Oireachtas that will decide on CETA, not the Irish people. “Once it is completed, it will have to be ratified by the parties involved, including all twenty-eight EU member-states. In Ireland’s case this will mean a decision of the houses of the Oireachtas.”
     Although CETA is an agreement between Canada and the EU, in fact more than 80 per cent of American transnational corporations will have access to European markets through CETA, by virtue of having an office in Canada. CETA was one half of a dual package, the other being TTIP, a proposed agreement between the EU and the United States. However, TTIP is in difficulties, and the election of Trump and his protectionist policies now puts this deal in doubt.
     The difficulty for EU countries is that TTIP would allow them access to American markets. Without TTIP, EU countries will not have the same favourable conditions of access to American markets as those enjoyed by American corporations under CETA. This will enhance US hegemony over Europe.
     CETA will bring in the feared quasi-legal corporate tribunals. Staffed by corporate lawyers, these tribunals will adjudicate on actions brought by North American transnationals against EU member-states if they believe that any law, regulation or action taken by a member-state threatens their profits, or potential profits. If found “guilty” the member-state could be fined billions of euros. The prospect of being hauled before these tribunals is enough to cause any EU member-state to be circumspect about any regulation it wishes to introduce, whether it is on health, the environment, or the work-place.
     CETA is the mechanism by which global financial capital will open up European public services, including Ireland’s. Global financial capital has targeted public services as new profit-generating markets. Housing, education and health will all be made available for capitalist penetration. In regard to housing, for example, CETA will have an impact in a number of ways. There will be a reduction in consumer rights and protection, and a reduction of standards in construction materials, in financial and mortgage services, and in environmental standards.
     The resulting race to the bottom will be copperfastened by the commercial tribunals. Should a North American corporation buy land in a development area, and should the local authority decide to increase the proportion of social housing in the area, or reduce the density of commercial buildings, or decide to create green spaces—or do anything that the American corporation can argue would affect its profits or potential profits—the local authority could find itself hauled before the commercial tribunal.
     This has serious implications for democracy. It could mean that urban development and planning could be constrained by fear of the impact it might have on the profits of a North American corporation. Power will be transferred from the local authority and its electorate to the corporation.
     Furthermore, CETA will force the EU to impose standards acceptable to North American corporations on all member-states. This will do two things: it will strengthen the hegemony of the EU Commission and the EU Central Bank over member-states, and it will strengthen North American hegemony in Europe.
     The Irish government has been an enthusiastic supporter of CETA, as have the Labour Party and Fianna Fáil. When the government had the opportunity to protect public services from the ravages of CETA, it refused to do so. It could have listed for exemption the public services that it wished to protect; it chose not to protect any.
     This is in keeping with the state’s running down of all public services as it prepares them for privatisation. Already we have witnessed the refusal of the present and previous governments to build an adequate supply of public housing. Instead they have been subsidising the private rental sector by transferring people from the housing waiting-lists to private-sector landlords.
     Similar things are happening in health, where private health companies have been used—at public expense—to take up those on hospital waiting-lists.
     The government argues that we have the highest expenditure on health in Europe, but that is only if you count what we pay to the private health industry. If this is taken out of the equation, our public health spending is among the lowest in Europe.
     The ratification of CETA prises open our public services for those whose priority is profit, rather than need. The government will facilitate this. Its subservience to the EU (as witnessed in accepting the lion’s share of EU speculators’ debt) and its economic dependence on foreign transnational corporations for our economic base has left it unwilling and unable to resist the capitalist onslaught on our public services and standards of living that CETA will bring.

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