The EU’s trade agreement with Canada cleared a crucial hurdle today (24 January) when it was approved by the European Parliament’s International Trade Committee, making way for the deal to be sent to a vote in the entire 751-seat chamber next month.
Twenty-five MEPs in the committee voted in favour of approving CETA, the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, while 15 rejected it and 1 abstained.
Tensions over CETA have been fraught since last autumn when the regional parliament of Belgium’s Wallonia delayed approving the deal, raising concerns that it might be scrapped entirely.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau signed the agreement in October. But CETA must be approved by the European Parliament and national parliaments in EU member countries before it can go into effect.
Last month, the European Parliament’s Social Affairs Committee voted to reject the deal on grounds that it does not do enough to boost job growth and improve working conditions. The Parliament axed a resolution last autumn to send the deal for approval to the European Court of Justice.
Supporters of CETA argue that it will add €12 billion each year to the EU’s economy and €8.5 billion to Canada’s, while increasing trade between by 20% between the 28-nation bloc and the North American country and getting rid of 99% of tariffs.
But critics warned that CETA lower environmental standards and pave the way for TTIP, the free EU-US trade agreement that has stalled amid broad outrage in European countries over the deal.
EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström warned MEPs yesterday that Europe needs to hold onto its “like-minded partners” like Canada, especially in light of newly inaugurated US President Donald Trump’s protectionist platform.
Just after Malmström finished speaking in the Parliament committee, Trump announced he would pull the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free-trade agreement between 12 countries that was awaiting ratification.
“We have an important friend and ally who seems to be at least partly disengaging from the international scene promoting less trade, more protectionism,” Malmström told the committee.
Latvian Partija Vienotiba MEP Artis Pabriks (EPP) said after today’s vote that the Parliament had addressed “all the concerns of our citizens” about CETA.
“This was possible because Europeans and Canadians share the same values and mutual trust,” Pabriks said.
“They label any criticism as a capitulation to populism, but an honest look at the evidence would force them to recognise that multinationals are gearing up for an assault on nature, on our health and on social rights,” said Greenpeace EU trade policy adviser Shira Stanton.
Greens/EFA MEP and outspoken CETA critic Ska Keller (The Greens) held her position that the EPP and parts of the S&D group have ushered in “a free trade deal that will be to the detriment of citizens”.
She added that “CETA undermines the precautionary principle in Europe and its use of private arbitration courts restricts democracy. The majority of MEPs voted in favour but it is still not clear how they are going to control CETA.”
The committee vote was the last big hope of CETA’s legions of detractors that the deal would be torpedoed. According to its critics, the agreement will water down Europe’s high standards in environmental and consumer protection, municipal heritage and cultural entities.
German CDU MEP Daniel Caspary (EPP) welcomed the decision, insisting that CETA is an opportunity: “CETA brings more trade, more growth, new jobs and higher wages”. Anti-trade activists had “taken it hostage and sought pretext after pretext to delay it”, he added.
Chairman of the International Trade Committee, German SPD MEP Bernd Lange (Socialists & Democrats) disagreed with this view and praised CETA for being “a progression expression of European trade policy”, which was negotiated thanks to “social-democratic pressure”.
Lange claimed that unlike other groups that had voted yes or no based purely on ideological grounds and that his group had debated extensively about the details of the deal and enforced reforms.
CETA will face a final vote in the Parliament’s plenary session on 15 February.