In just under a week, the citizens of the small Belgian state of Wallonia, who dared to challenge the giants of the global big business world and Brussels by blocking the signing of CETA, have been reigned in to order. Europe and Canada will thus go back to the table for the signing, at least provisionally, of the controversial trade agreement. The Wallonia example, however, need not be seen as a failure.
The blocking of the Belgian parliament in effect resulted in the postponement of the summit, scheduled for last Thursday, thus increasing attention on the whole process of democratic negotiations. In addition, the Wallonians also gained a series of assurances, not least that the European Court of Justice will be brought in to determine the legality of the Investor State Dispute Settlement system (ISDS), or ICS regarding disputes with multinationals. A considerable achievement considering that, according to legal experts, the ISDS tribunals would be incompatible with European Law. Now it is up to the Belgian Parliament to come up with a formal position at the next meeting with the Canadian delegation to sign the accord.
"Wallonia has shown the way. Diversity, decentralization, and democracy work for people. Monocultures, centralisation, and dictatorship serve corporate interests." —Vandana Shiva, NavdanyaAs such, the Wallonian experience could radically change the future course of events, as Vandana Shiva, president of Navdanya, explains: "Wallonia has shown the way. Diversity, decentralization, and democracy work for people. Monocultures, centralisation, and dictatorship serve corporate interests. It’s time to reclaim our freedoms from corporate rule imposed through so-called 'Free Trade' agreements."
According to Shiva, the Wallonian case is a beacon of light and an example of the path that Europe, as well as the rest of the world, should follow. "Free Trade agreements, beginning with the one written by the East India Company to colonise India, are instruments of slavery, of destruction of people’s freedoms and sovereignty. The WTO agreement on TRIPS aimed at patenting life was written by Monsanto and the Agriculture Agreement was written by Cargill. This shows has just two or three giant corporations get together to write rules which take over our national and local economies, and destroy our democracies. CETA, TTIP, TTIP and other new free trade agreements with their ISDS clauses are clear attempts to destroy what remains of our fragile democracies and fragile economies. That is why we must stop them."
CETA, the free-trade treaty between the EU and Canada, would guarantee to over 40,000 big US companies—such as Coca Cola, Mc Donald, and Cargill—the same privileges that TTIP would guarantee, through their Canadian associates. Those involved in the negotiations are now questioning its procedures and what went wrong. In the front row, Alessia Mosca, Member of the European Parliament and member of the EU’s Committee on International Trade, states: "There is evidently a democracy issue where and when a small parliament can keep the European Parliament from expressing its position." Public attention seems focused in the right direction, which is on the democratic consensus surrounding a treaty which promises to have a substantial impact on millions of workers’ and consumers’ lives on either side of the Atlantic. Yet the MEP’s statement sits uneasily with civil society organisations' recent claims, namely that of having experienced in their own turn a democratic deficit during the treaty’s negotiation.
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Having been negotiated behind closed doors and without the involvement of civil society representatives, CETA triggered outrage in European public opinion as millions of citizens took over the squares of major European capitals to oppose a new generation of treaties such as CETA and TTIP. Almost 3.5 million signatures have been collected all over Europe against the new free trade agreements. From the negotiators' point of view, the issue does not so much lie in the quality of the negotiation procedures (which are exclusive and even secret), but rather in the fact that "0.6% of the European population has proven to be an obstacle to an agreement reached by the whole of Europe." In other words: it’s all Wallonia’s fault, guilty of having declined an ultimatum in the name of quality and transparency for the protection of its citizens.
Meanwhile, the negotiators have already sounded the death knell. According to the negotiators' interpretation, the European Union is bound to pay—in terms of GDP and job losses, as well as loss of credibility and trust in the international market. The staunchest pessimists go as far as to warn that the very future of the European Union is at risk, as Ms. Mosca herself stressed when she stated "Europe has no future, until the okay on CETA is reached." This is a common refrain which we already heard during the Brexit referendum. However, this strategy aimed at influencing democratic decisions through the spread of apocalyptic messages does not seem to work. The strategy of "terror" and "fear" cannot and should not find fertile ground in Europe. The most immediate example of this is the proliferation of vague, approximate data being spoon-fed to a public whose opinion has by now grown used to being wary of easy promises. Moreover, the ruckus raised around the loss of jobs and GDP is based on biased studies, which have been widely criticized and contradicted by independent studies published over the last few months by civil society organizations and by experts in the field.
The issue of propaganda is crucial in the context of this new generation of corporate-friendly treaties. As Nina Holland of the Corporate Europe Observatory, in the "Attack on Democracy" session recently held at the International People’s Assembly at The Hague, underlined: "It is from this play on words, from the capacity to manipulate language and the essential European principles, from propaganda tactics used to promote free-trade treaties, that we need to protect ourselves: the principle of precaution does not harm a country’s innovation; on the contrary, it promotes the safety of innovation and the freedom of its citizens."
The mobilization of citizens and civil society organizations against CETA, TTIP, and similar deals is thus to be considered a positive European Union experience, as underlined by the "green" Member of European Parliament Bart Staes who stated: "The movement that is growing around free-trade treaties represents a positive historical event because it is unifying Europe in such a moment of divisiveness at the political level. Europe risks falling to pieces." However, the Belgian MEP concluded, "the movement protesting against the new generation of trade treaties (which are anti- democratic by their very essence) is managing to bring together consumer associations and trade unions as well as common citizens."
All in all, then, the best recipe for Europe's comeback on the international scene seems to be exactly this: a solid dose of democracy to lead citizens back into believing in a project of integration, which is crucial for the fate of humanity as a whole.