As MEPs Vote On CETA, Trade Unions Demand A New Approach To Trade

Article by Liina Carr, published on Social Europe

As MEPs Vote On CETA, Trade Unions Demand A New Approach To Trade

After months of argument which brought hundreds of thousands of protestors onto the streets of European cities, the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) is this week taking a further step towards implementation, with the vote in the European Parliament.

MEPs were put in a difficult position: forced to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a deal that many might have preferred to see significantly amended. As a so-called ‘mixed agreement’, CETA will go on to Member State governments for approval – a process which could take months or years. In the meantime, many elements will already be applied ‘provisionally’.

Last October, the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) united with the Canadian Labour Congress to express profound concerns about CETA. Most of those concerns remain, and together we will continue to campaign, lobby decision-makers and press for improvements.

This is important because CETA includes a crucial review clause (Article 23.11.5), which allows the chapter covering labour to be modified. The Joint Interpretative Instrument agreed between Canada and the EU in October also permits governments to reinforce labour protection and take action against violations of labour law. We believe the various committees set up under the deal must ensure it safeguards employment standards and brings social and environmental benefits. Critical issues are still pending, pre-ratification, such as the contentious Investment Court System (ICS) and the protection of public services. We will use every avenue available to pursue our demands, in both the EU and Canada, including the European Parliament.

Thanks to pressure from trade unions and civil society, the European Commission already backed away from the original, undemocratic Investor State Dispute Settlement mechanism. The ICS, while an improvement, still gives too much power to multinational businesses. Nevertheless, this was an important achievement, showing that we can make a difference.

During the next phase: provisional application of CETA prior to national approval, trade unions will be watching to ensure workers’ interests are not harmed and investors’ profits do not take precedence, while campaigning at national level for high standards of protection. The Commission must act on the pledge in its ‘Trade for All’ strategy, to make trade policy “more responsible, meaning it will be more effective, more transparent and will not only project our interests, but also our values”.

Trade policy might once have been considered arcane, but no longer. Well before Donald Trump started making headlines by tearing up international agreements, NGOs and trade unions became aware of the threat that unfair trade deals could pose to living and working standards in the EU. But far from being isolationist, our position is that international agreements should go ahead only if they feature a comprehensive social dimension and reinforce international solidarity, raising standards for workers in partner nations as well as in Europe.

Working with civil society, we helped to inform and mobilise thousands of people. The regional government of Wallonia in Belgium was the most courageous in reflecting our concerns – withholding its approval until the end of October last year.

The ETUC does not oppose free trade – properly regulated it can contribute to growth and create jobs. But CETA must not be taken as a benchmark for future negotiations. Since most observers agree that the new US administration plans to kill the TTIP transatlantic trade deal, the Commission is likely to speed up talks with other potential trade partners like Japan, Mexico and Mercosur. At the same time, negotiations continue on the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA). We have urged the Commission to learn the hard lessons from CETA, that workers’ rights and public services are not for sale.

In this global context, the ETUC is pressing for a comprehensive policy rethink and adoption of a Progressive Trade Agenda:

  • EU trade deals should protect and improve labour rights in both the EU and partner countries, promoting decent work and wages, sustainable development and care for the environment. Companies must take responsibility for working conditions throughout their supply chains.
  • Public services must be excluded from trade and investment deals. Europeans should have guaranteed access to universal, affordable services.
  • We still want more transparency in negotiations, including the prompt publication of negotiating positions. Transparency means not merely a one-way supply of information, but also ongoing supervision by democratically elected representatives, and meaningful consultation with trade unions and civil society. Industry lobbyists must not have preferential access to negotiators.
  • Trade unions and employers (social partners), together with civil society organisations, should be able to monitor the implementation of all trade agreements, for example through Civil Society Monitoring mechanisms or Domestic Advisory Groups, which need funding and support from the Commission. They should be able to file complaints if workers’ rights are abused.
  • Complaints are futile without sanctions. While CETA commits the EU and Canada to uphold core ILO standards, there are no effective penalties if labour rights are violated. We understand that in the negotiations, the Canadian authorities proposed economic sanctions, but regrettably they were rejected by the Commission. Trade unions will only be able to raise concerns in the advisory groups, whereas powerful foreign investors can claim massive damages through the ICS if they feel their freedoms have been infringed. We cannot accept multinational companies having enforceable rights while workers have none.

We have noted EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström’s pledge, in a letter to the Chair of the European Parliament International Trade Committee, to carry out an immediate consultation with all stakeholders and launch a review of CETA’s trade and sustainable development chapters by the summer. Trade unions will be monitoring this commitment and demanding results.

The ETUC and its affiliates believe the CETA trade agreement is neither progressive nor fair. It may be going ahead, but there is growing strength of feeling and demand in Europe for an EU trade policy that fulfils these criteria, and the fight to secure that goal continues unabated.

The ETUC and its affiliates believe the CETA trade agreement is neither progressive nor fair. It may be going ahead, but there is growing strength of feeling and demand in Europe for an EU trade policy that fulfils these criteria, and the fight to secure that goal continues unabated.