Jasper van Dijk and Anne-Marie Mineur: After CETA, the EU wants to throw in its lot with Japan

6 January 2017

Jasper van Dijk and Anne-Marie Mineur: After CETA, the EU wants to throw in its lot with Japan

Last year Trade Minister Lilianne Ploumen was arguing in favour of a ‘reset’ of free trade policy aimed at making fairer agreements. Yet she seems to have few concerns about the new, CETA-like accord with Japan, say Anne-Marie Mineur and Jasper van Dijk.

“I hear that we are very close to an agreement,” Labour Party Trade and Development Minister Lilianne Ploumen told national newspaper NRC on 17th December. True, she did mention that Japan had yet to agree to the new arbitration system, but she immediately added that the country “is a stable democracy which recognises all international climate and labour accords.”

The reality is that the treaty with Japan looks a lot like the CETA, the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement between the EU and Canada. Every controversial aspect of that treaty is also present in the treaty with Japan, including an investors' court in which multinationals can prosecute governments if they break agreements. The impact, however, is potentially much bigger, as the Japanese economy is three times the size of that of Canada. In short, Ploumen might have been a great deal more critical.

In June the Minister was still calling for a 'reset' of free trade policy. Three points were important in this, as the national media reported it. Agreement with the Climate Accord and the Millennium Goals, which include getting rid of extreme poverty; a more transparent negotiation process and making it much clearer where the gains of the trade agreement can be found. Fine words, except that none of this was followed up.

Mandate from the multinationals

Ever since the establishment of the European Economic Community in 1957, concluding trade agreements has been the responsibility of the European Commission. The 2009 Treaty of Lisbon extended this to include investment treaties. Thus was quickly followed up, the first treaties being as good as ready. Fully negotiated, approved by the Commission, examined by the Council of Ministers and even presented to the European Parliament.

Yet you can't say that this makes the EU a shining example of transparency and social sensitivity. The mandate from which the European Commission works is given to them by the multinationals, the principal goal of which is to get rid of the 'burdensome regulation’ with which they must comply. Big business has been ever-present when this mandate is being shaped, while trade unions, environmental organisations and consumer groups have had what has been for the most part a ceremonial role.

Disaster for society

Neither does the European Parliament have much chance to intervene in the negotiations. Though MEPs may examine the relevant papers, they are forbidden to discuss them in public. It is therefore hardly surprising that the new generation of trade treaties has been a subject for celebration for the multinationals and a disaster for society. There is nothing here that aims to increase transparency or narrow the gap between rich and poor.

Minister Ploumen's stated desire to greatly increase the transparency of the procedures and thus give the public a more powerful voice is one which we share. It would transform the nature of these treaties. The thwarted expectation that completely free trade would be wonderful for everyone is at the end of the day untenable. To have all soya cultivated in Brazil means the death of the tropical rain forest, and the fuel necessary for the mass transport of all of these products is putting a heavy burden on our environment. The undermining of our democratic system is a price which many, with good reason, find too high.

Work to do

Crucial to any far-reaching trade treaty is democratic control, which in our view needs to brought much closer to the people. For starters, national parliaments must be able to participate in framing such treaties. It is crazy that Brussels alone has the right to decide. Opposition to treaties such as the EU-US TTIP and the EU-Canadian CETA occurred to a large extent because the treaties were negotiated behind closed doors. National approval is therefore also of great importance, and for preference this should be by referendum.

The treaty with Japan must at the very least be presented to the national parliaments. This would give Minister Ploumen the time to push the reset button and truly change the way in which trade policy is established. Time to get down to work, then.

Anne-Marie Mineur and Jasper van Dijk are respectively Members of the European and national parliaments for the SP. This article first appeared, in the original Dutch, on the website of national newspaper NRC on 5 January.

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