CETA, Local Democracy, and the Liberal Order

| October 2016
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CETA–the Canada/EU free trade agreement–is now on political life support. The multiyear effort to craft a common market across the Atlantic and to strengthen the bonds of the liberal order in the West is running right up against the local democracy of Wallonia. Belgium, as a member-state of the EU, must add its signature to the agreement for it to be submitted for ratification, but the federal government cannot take action unless the constituent regions also all give their imprimatur. A mix of principle (particularly concerns about CETA relying on judicial instruments that lie beyond the supervision of elected governments to settle disputes) and interest (will CETA damage the interests of local producers) has fueled the opposition of the government of Wallonia (as well as other regions in Belgium, including the Brussels region) to the deal. A Canada-EU signing ceremony is now postponed for the foreseeable future.

Wallonia’s decision to block Belgium’s approval–condemned by many who see it as obstructionism–has been applauded by others who see it as striking a blow for accountability–that local peoples deserve to weigh in on the commitments that will bind them. CETA was the latest battleground where abstract appeals to “the greater good” (the creation of a trans-Atlantic common market among like-minded liberal democratic states) runs up against concerns about winners and losers. As Steve Walt noted at the Carnegie Council in September, things like free trade agreements create “winners, often far more winners than losers; but it does create some losers, people who do not do well, at least in the short term. As a result, the latter are rarely happy about it and the latter can use the same institutions of democracy to make that discontent known.” As Devin Stewart, speaking at the same event, continued, there is a lack of trust in many parts of the European Union with the “Eurocrats”–a seemingly unaccountable group of bureaucrats who seem more responsive to special interests rather than to local citizens. The fear that CETA would create mechanisms that would allow companies to bypass local or national laws and institutions helped to drive Wallonian opposition.

CETA may end up going forward. Much depends on whether clarifications of the agreement address Wallonian concerns. But it raises doubts for the larger U.S.-EU attempt at creating a common economic area (the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP), which is also dead in the water right now, as well as how a post-Brexit Britain will negotiate its future relationship with Europe. In the past, European citizens seemed willing to trust that the EU was looking out for their interests. Does the CETA pause suggest that the pendulum is swinging back towards national and local institutions?

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  1. Nikolas Gvosdev says:

    CETA has now been signed, because Wallonia was given assurances that its farmers will receive additional assistance to cushion potential losses and to have the CETA arbitration system reviewed by the European Court of Justice to ensure that it cannot be used to bypass existing domestic legislation. However, the agreement will still need to be ratified, and it is clear that the issues Wallonia brought to the fore will still be influencing future policy.