Following the Brexit vote, the EU is looking for new ways to impress its citizens. The conversation around the EU-Canada free trade agreement is exactly how not to do that. But it's not all bad, DW's Max Hofmann writes.
The European Union and Canada have been negotiating their Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement for five years now. It was more or less finished in 2014. Then the European side wanted to renegotiate. A patient Canada was open to prodding and even prepared to discuss the politically sensitive topic of investor protection. The result is the "EU's best negotiated trade deal," European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said. And he's completely right.
Juncker is also right that the commission can legally classify the agreement as "not mixed." All that's left is for the European Parliament and European Council, which represents the governments of EU member states, to ratify it. National parliaments do not, but it's nonsense to claim, as some do, that this fact alone makes the vote undemocratic: The European Parliament is democratically elected, and the ministers come from democratically elected governments.
Where the commission president gets it wrong, however, is in pushing a potentially confrontational issue while the European Union itself is at odds with certain member states. Juncker could have found a better time than immediately after the Brexit referendum. Or perhaps this was his calculation and he hoped that the issue would be dwarfed by the much bigger problem of the United Kingdom's looming exit. Maybe Juncker just didn't want to postpone it any longer. Whatever the case, it's the wrong time.
'Dumb,' 'unbelievably foolish'
Juncker's actions seem to confirm the worst suspicions that Europeans have of Brussels. Just days after the Brexit referendum, he insists on a legally and formally correct, but deeply unpopular approach. Only the EU bodies need to decide on CETA, while the parliaments of the 28 nations that compose the European Union have no say. This is what needs to happen for the trade agreement to come into force, but the timing and sensitivity of Juncker's effort show that the commission is deaf to the fears of EU citizens.
Harsh criticism of the move, however, is also ill-advised. German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel said the "dumb pushing through" of CETA was "unbelievably foolish" and would deepen the hole that the European Union has dug for itself. The prevailing wisdom in many corners of the European Union is that everything bad comes from Brussels and everything good is the result of national self-determination.
Member states and EU institutions don't always have to be in agreement. This is only natural; they are democratic governments and bodies with varying political views. Fears of a further erosion of the European Union's influence alone are no reason to avoid conflict, but discord should be handled objectively, factually and with sensitivity to the difficult spot that the European Union finds itself in now. German Chancellor Angela Merkel demonstrated this at last week's Brexit summit in Brussels. She said the commission would need to clarify its legal position. The words "foolish" and "dumb" weren't uttered by her.
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