Trade agreements are difficult things to discuss because they require such specialised knowledge and attention to detail. But they have such an impact on our economy and society that we must be alert to what they contain.
If you followed the advice from politicians or the European Commission, the new CETA (Comprehensive and Economic Trade Agreement) trade deal between Canada and EU would appear to be a no-brainer: opening markets, reducing costs, boosting jobs, and strengthening communities.
There is a lot to think about at the minute. The run up to Christmas is always a busy time and this has been complicated exponentially by the pandemic which makes even simple decisions about who to visit over Christmas involve much considered thought. It is in this background of busyness and distraction that the Irish Government scheduled to ratify the treaty tomorrow, Tuesday 15th December, when few of us have time to give the topic the attention it warrants.
But the CETA agreement is not as simple as has been presented. And ratifying it should not be a simple box-ticking exercise. Its promoters will talk at length about the benefits to small and medium enterprises and export markets. They will not discuss its opacity and profoundly troubling aspects. They will not give you time to pause to consider if continuous economic growth is still the goal we should pursue. The last thing they want out in the open is the legal mechanisms contained in this agreement.
CETA includes mechanisms that would allow corporations to sue EU member States through an obscure apparatus known as the Investor Court Settlement system should any laws or regulations be passed that the corporation believes would impact their profits or cost them money. While this system allows corporations to sue governments, there is no mechanism to counter-sue corporations for any breaches they may commit. If we vote to ratify this trade deal, we vote to accept surrendering some of the power of our State to multinational corporations, who one can imagine may not have the average citizen’s best interests at heart.
While this in itself is a disturbing concept for any government to embrace, it could have severe implications for progressing policies and legislation that aim to transform our society towards decarbonisation and sustainability. There is a risk that hard-won environmental legislations such as our ban on fracking and the ongoing campaign to ban oil and gas exploration in Irish waters may expose us to litigation from companies with vested interests in exploring for fossil fuels in Ireland.
This is not a far-fetched risk designed to scaremonger. There is a history and precedent of corporations suing States in protest against environmental and public health regulations that potentially harmed profits. Extracting and processing resources from the earth is both intrinsically profitable and environmentally destructive. The regulations that are in place to keep our environments safe should not be fodder used by corporations to sue our Governments.
The kind of politician who sees CETA as a very good thing is also likely to talk in lamentable terms about a thing called populism which threatens our democracy. Pope Francis, in his recent publication Fratelli Tutti, has some helpful clarifications about why certain kinds of populism are good actually. There is a deep and growing perception in large parts of the population that much that passes through our parliaments is only tangentially concerned with the common good. The ever-widening gap in income inequality is just the most obvious trend that underwrites this suspicion. Agreements like CETA strengthen that popular impression. Their anti-democratic clauses would be alarming. But that the democratically elected government seeks to ratify it without due debate and examination is doubly damning.
As we endeavour to reimagine our society as more socially just, sustainable and equal, voting to surrender our power and ability to create policies and regulations to make these dreams a reality is entirely flawed. There is widespread dismay within the Green Party that this plan is in motion with reports that the vote may well be removed from the schedule this week.
While this development may be a positive signal, the fact that CETA is still on the Government’s agenda is concerning. We may succeed in postponing the vote but we need the interim time to be spend engaging the public in meaningful discussion on the serious ramifications of this deal.
You should take this opportunity to contact your TDs and inform them that you do not want such significant developments to slide under the radar.