The European Commission has given in to harsh criticism - and will now let national parliaments vote on the trade agreement between Canada and the EU. With that, a long period of wrangling will ensue, says Barbara Wesel.
Utterly crazy and totally off the mark - that is how critics have described the European Commission's decision to seek to ratify CETA (Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement) without the input of national parliaments. The decision was the wrong signal at the wrong time: in such a situation, coming on the heels of the Brexit, it would be shortsighted to push through such an agreement without the participation of member state's parliaments. If the European Commission had followed through with the move, it would have confirmed the worst of the many prejudices held against Brussels.
The European Commission gives in
In light of the attacks, European Commission President Jean-Claude had to back down and allow national parliaments to participate in the ratification of CETA. The Greens in the European Parliament immediately applauded the decision. They called it a "victory for civil society and for European democracy." In principle they are correct, for it is no doubt more democratic when all 28 parliaments in the EU can now pore over the fine print of the trade agreement.
It is also clear that this draft agreement - just like TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) - bears the birth defect of having been negotiated in secret over the course of several years. That is exactly the kind of opacity that Europe is always accused of. Thus, member states' parliaments will now be retroactively invited to participate. With that, a years-long wrangling will begin, because the trade portion of the agreement goes into effect as soon as it is ratified by the European Parliament. However, those portions that affect national responsibilities will be overlaid with change requests from individual member states. That process went on for more than four years in the trade agreement between the EU and South Korea.
It remains to be seen just how long the ratification process of TTIP may last considering all of the protests and criticisms against the agreement with the USA.
Decision-making process will be longer
Opponents of the treaty and those critical of aspects such as investor protection and arbitration courts contained within it will be especially happy. But how justified is the enthusiasm about this "victory for democracy"? Decision-making processes within the EU will become slower, and the Commission will be more or less unable to act. On the one hand, the EU is supposed to provide more economic growth and create jobs, but on the other hand - and in this political climate - it will be unable to push through the market liberalization that has, to date, been the best method for accomplishing just that.
The situation raises a number of yet unanswered questions: How can the balance between democratic transparency and discrete negotiations be reasonably achieved? How can economic growth be created if further market liberalization and globalization are no longer wanted? How much capacity to act can the European Commission retain if nations prefer to make decisions on their own?
Things will become even more interesting when withdrawal negotiations with Great Britain begin: at that point, as with CETA, not only will the governments of EU member states vote on new trade agreements with the British, but all of their national parliaments will vote on them as well. If things go that far, the Brexit could very well become the longest divorce trial of the modern era.