EU trade policy was given a hefty dose of clarity today, after the European Court of Justice (ECJ) said the Commission cannot finalise its Singapore deal without member state involvement. But Brussels will be happy nonetheless…
The Singapore deal might not be the EU’s most lucrative or controversial but it could prove to be its most legally significant. The ECJ’s opinion means the free trade agreement (FTA) will have to be approved by member state parliaments.
It’ll now serve as a template for the future of EU trade, because the Singapore FTA is so close in content and structure to other deals Brussels has in the pipeline. That’s why the Commission asked the ECJ about it in the first place.
It’s tempting to ask why the Commission would risk opening this Pandora’s Box, especially after the debacle of the Wallonia-CETA veto. But this was all about getting clarity and fixing the rules of engagement.
This is the first major ruling on EU competences since the adoption of the Lisbon Treaty, when the rules of the game were changed and the Commission was granted new powers over trade. But doubts have persisted about who has the final say over what.
And with Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström jetting around the world in search of new business, the task ahead is now clearer. Remember, TTIP may be on life support but it ain’t dead and buried yet.
Future trade talks will also benefit from the fact that the ECJ confirmed the EU has the sole right to negotiate transport services, important environmental issues and labour standards. These are no longer grey areas.
Does this mean the UK’s chances of getting a post-Brexit trade deal just got a whole lot worse? In a word: no.
It’s not too hard to imagine Brussels and London brokering an agreement that sticks to areas of exclusive EU competence, cutting out the need to deal with the pitfalls of a mixed deal. Neither have expressed any desire to negotiate investment, for example.
As the court says, most of the Singapore deal can be green-lit by the EU alone. If the Commission does include shared issues, it may end up splitting a UK deal so it can push through most of it alone, while asking the member states to look at just a small part.
The UK will still have to negotiate a whole raft of controversial topics first, including citizen rights and free movement, before trade talks can even be started. But that’s another story.
Of course the Commission would rather go it alone in finalising its agreements. CETA was hugely embarrassing for the institutions and this court decision means that the same could happen again. In theory.
But the ECJ has given the good people at DG Trade a massive opportunity today. What can and what can’t be done by the Commission acting alone is now crystal clear. So don’t expect a repeat of the Walloon drama anytime soon.
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Poland was heavily criticised by EU ministers at a General Affairs Council meeting. They raised concerns about the independence of its judiciary and Commissioner Frans Timmermans repeated that Article 7 (suspension of voting rights) remains “in the toolbox”.
Emmanuel Macron met Angela Merkel in Berlin yesterday evening. Treaty change isn’t going to happen soon but it now has the chancellor’s blessing. Fields Medal winner Cédric Villani said Germany knows “how much it owes Macron”.
The unveiling of the new French government has been delayed until tomorrow so ministers can be properly vetted. The Netherlands still can’t put a coalition together and the main sticking point is migration. The Commission has once again called on member states to meet their refugee quotas.
Nordic countries are frontrunners in waste disposal but are now standing in the way of ambitious new recycling targets. No such opposition from the EU’s southern members.
A new YouGov poll shows how the UK Conservatives look set to dominate the 8 June election. EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini is confident the UK won’t stand in the way of the bloc’s defence ambitions.
Look out for…
Commissioners Frans Timmermans and Dimitris Avramopoulos will meet Ömer Çelik, Turkey’s minister for EU affairs and lead negotiator on Ankara’s EU bid. Maybe they will ask the minister why Turkey violated Greek airspace 141 times yesterday.
Views are the author’s.