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19 November 2016
The scandal about to hit the European Parliament on CETA
The self-inflicted chaos of the last few months over CETA has left many of us covering the issue in the European Parliament stunned. The Commission, who ignored the concerns of the Walloon parliament for two years, caused a last minute panic, delaying a symbolic signing of the CETA deal and wrongly framing the small Belgian region against the rest of Europe. To fix their mess, they hastily overloaded CETA with 37 non-binding “clarifying interpretations”, that are at times contradictory, and whose legal validity is unclear. That only served to confuse things even more. The Belgian prime-minister even admitted that the debacle “did not change a comma” in the CETA agreement.
While it looks like the story is finished, it is by no means over. Now CETA is about to begin the ratification process through the European Parliament. This ordinary procedure is usually relatively straight-forward; committees that cover issues relating to the trade agreement get to scrutinise the deal. That means hearings, debates and written opinions, with an accompanying resolution outlining the opinion of the European Parliament as a whole for all 751 MEPs to vote on. These procedures strengthen the democratic oversight at EU level and ensure the Parliament isn’t just there to rubber stamp whatever is handed to them by the Commission. Except not this time. With CETA, nearly every rule in the book has been thrown out the window.
No time. No analysis.
CETA will only officially arrive at the European Parliament on November 21. From then MEPs have six months to analyse, write opinions, debate and vote. But a coup of sorts has ensured none of the usual procedures count this time. The centre-left and centre right groups, that together make up the huge majority known to many of us as the “grand coalition” in the European Parliament have plotted to ensure CETA will speed so quickly through this institution that if you blink, you may miss it. They want a vote as early as December, making it impossible for the Parliament to assess CETA in any concrete terms.
Despite CETA not even reaching the Parliament yet, MEPs in the International Trade Committee (INTA) held a hearing on November 10 which foresaw an explanation of the 37 Union and Member State statements known as the “Joint Interpretive Instrument” by the Commission and Council. Except the Council never showed up. The Commission attempted on answer some questions, but the meeting ended with many left unanswered.
Already the usual accompanying resolution that allows MEPs and committees to fully scrutinise the deal was rejected by INTA some weeks earlier. In an unprecedented move, there simply won’t be one now. The Greens were one of the few voices that cried foul, but it fell on deaf ears.
To make matters worse, several committees who have oversight on certain aspects covered in CETA have requested their own opinions, and as it stands all have been denied. The environment and employment committees, who complained that the speedy timetable made it impossible to adequately assess CETA, were refused opinions for seemingly no reason but to silence any critique.
Democracy: a lunch meeting with one person?
“It is breathtaking really, how we are being forced to act so quickly” my colleague Bart Staes noted this week. As rapporteur for the rejected opinion from the environment committee, he like the rest of us, is shocked to see the rights of the European Parliament ignored so blatantly. “It is impossible to make any substantive assessment in light of the calendar adopted by INTA. In effect- we cannot do our job. It’s clear that the aim is to sweep the debate off the table.”
The S&D group, the centre-left bloc, only a month ago asserted that CETA needed to be thoroughly scrutinised by the European Parliament, and even the national parliaments needed to be involved in that process. It seems that these plans are merely optical illusions. Not only did they block the accompanying resolution, but they now support the speedy vote through Parliament. As for the consultation from national parliaments, this will be a lunch meeting with one representative from each county’s parliament. I would laugh if it was a joke!
No legal clarity
It is clear the major parties have no intention of safeguarding the rights of the European Parliament to adequately assess a deal of such importance. It is a scandal that elected members of parliament are unable to do their jobs due to this manufactured sense of urgency. Not even the Council is asking for such a quick procedure.
And there still remains the legal uncertainty. The “Joint Interpretive Instrument” may cause more headaches for lawyers, but what is even more important is what is in the CETA text itself.
Many legal experts, including the German Judges Association, and even an Advocate General of the ECJ, are convinced that any kind of ISDS system in CETA may be incompatible with EU law. It urgently requires an opinion from the European Court of Justice.
As it stands, the ECJ has not been asked for an opinion as to whether such investor arbitration mechanisms are compatible with the EU Treaties. A ruling on the Singapore agreement, due in Spring 2017, will only assess whether or not investor arbitration is of Union or of mixed competence with Member States. Under the agreements with Wallonia, it secured the opportunity to bring the question to the ECJ. However it has not yet done so, and rumours suggest that it may not at all.
The European Parliament also has the power to ask for an opinion from the ECJ. We intend to do so next week. After weeks of procedural manoeuvres that have eroded and damaged our democratic processes, we must secure a majority in Parliament to send CETA to the ECJ. Regardless of your political beliefs, the chaos that CETA has unleashed shows no sign of abating without legal clarity.
You can help, by demanding your MEPs do vote in favour of our resolution next week: http://start.groenlinks.nl/ceta/