In Europe, as in most of the world, free trade agreements (FTAs) have become the vessel by excellence through which multinational corporations and big business expand their conquest of new markets.
Promoted as a panacea for the economic crisis hitting many regions of the world, the only growth these corporations instigate through FTAs is that of their own power and wealth, through which they besiege our public institutions, dismantle regulations (labor, environmental, health) and attempt neutralizing civil society and our struggle for social reforms.
For us, farmers, the stakes are even higher: on one hand, the dumping of cheap agroindustrial surplus in our regions is often a fatal blow to our livelihoods, since such low prices do not allow us to cover production costs or have a minimum income. On the other hand, FTAs cripple public policies like the CAP, abandoning regulation and the control of production to adapt it to the global market ambitions of the industrial food chain, where the cheapest provider exports. The lie consists in saying that farmers, consumers and nature have the same interests as big business.
Can FTAs be improved? The question should rather be if a deal that has been constructed from A to Z by multinationals and big business can serve the People.
The free trade agreement between the EU and Canada (CETA) embodies precisely all the above.
There’s on one hand the abolition of tariffs on nearly all goods and the increase of quotas on imports. If CETA starts operating, the EU’s quota for beef and pork imports will be allowed to increase up to fourteen-fold in comparison to current levels. The problem is that there’s already a surplus of meat in Europe! And it’s causing destructive producer prices! The import of duty free Canadian beef means granting even larger quotas to other countries (Mercosur, Australia, New-Zealand…) where costs of production are even lower.
The priority must be to regulate production, to assure the continued existence of local agriculture, not to authorize the entry of more beef and pork . Inversely, the increase in dairy quotas in the agreement would facilitate additional cheese exports to Canada, putting considerable pressure on the Canadian dairy sector, which through a supply management system currently provides Canadian dairy farmers with stable, fair incomes. Unlike the EU, that pulled out all the brakes on milk production regulation in 2015, sending countless dairy farmers to bankruptcy, Canada’s system allots its producers with a production quota, fining them for every liter of milk that exceeds the quota, thus maintaining a balance between supply and domestic demand.
With the pretext of “harmonizing”, CETA and other free trade agreements create regulatory cooperation tools, or rather “de-regulatory cooperation”. The idea is that, gradually, by having the same rules on both sides of the Atlantic, trade will be easier and profits greater. In line with this, we could foresee the wide spread use in our region of antibiotherapy, hormones on livestock, chlorine-washed chicken and the consumption of cloned animals, practices currently forbidden in Europe.
The biotechnology industry is another sector spearheading the implementation of CETA. The EU’s strict rules for biotech products are a barrier for many Canadian exporters, who employ a wider array of GMOs than those allowed in the EU. Canada tried already in 2003 to invalidate the EU’s GMO regulation before the WTO. Another attempt is being prepared with CETA.
This FTA does not openly question European GMO regulation, but obliges both parties to bring their respective regulations closer together and, in particular, to submit to the other party any draft new regulation even before submitting it to its own political decision-making bodies! (EU Parliament and Council). Last summer’s ECJ ruling on new GMOs requires the EU to produce implementing measures or, as suggested by various States, to revise its Directive: with CETA, these processes can only be carried out with Canada’s agreement before any final European regulatory or legislative decision is taken.
With this on the foreground, another nail on the coffin of future EU GMO regulation could very well be the agreement under CETA for both parties “to promote efficient science-based approval process for biotech products”. North America and biotech firms have long loathed the EU’s precautionary principle, which requires any product to first be proven harmless to humans and the environment before it’s in the market. Inversely, for corporate interests, if a risk isn’t absolute then a product can’t be banned, an approach they like to call “science-based”.
Finally, some countries such as France will see their own legislation on intellectual property rights challenged by CETA, which does not recognize the cancellation of patent protection if patented genetic information accidentally appears in seeds (e.g. GMO contamination), nor does it prohibit the seizing of crops from farm-saved seeds if there’s the presumption of counterfeiting (e.g. GMO contamination).*
The ISDS: the pinnacle of indulgence to the corporate sector. Present in the CETA but also many other FTAs, the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS or ICS) allows big business to circumvent public courts and creates a special jurisdiction accessible only to them, where private judges, paid by the companies, scrutinize the cases. If a corporation considers that the recent implementation of a government’s public policy -like stricter environmental regulation or stricter labour laws- puts its profits at risk, then it can take the State (or EU) to the ISDS. In practice this has given rise to cases like the one where, in 2009, Swedish energy giant, Vattenfall, sued and won against the German government for environmental restrictions imposed on one of its coal fired power plants, or Philip Morris’s challenging of Uruguay’s tobacco control measures meant to reduce smoking and demanding compensation for profit losses. The ISDS is an instrument that defends the interests of multinationals against the rights and sovereignty of people and States. The ISDS clashes head-on with Food Sovereignty.**
Farmers, workers and consumers have a common interest in fighting against these treaties, all of which are not only aimed at lowering tariff barriers, but perhaps more importantly at neutralizing, through gimmicks like ISDS, our ability to defend ourselves through our political institutions. It is these political dictates integral to these FTAs, which constitute a relentless assault on farmers’ and workers’ rights.
Such a struggle, though, reveals the impossibility of fighting entrenched on our sector or country. The scale of this struggle is cross-sectoral and international. Against transnational free trade treaties of the corporate elite, like CETA and company, we can only fight for a strong international grassroot movement that pushes for investments that meet our global challenges, that promote our Food Sovereignty, in which empowered farmer, worker and consummer organisations participate and determine what is needed in terms of social justice, public health, rural development and environmental protection.
Livestock farmers, peasants, citizens, let us unite this Friday 25/01 against the CETA and other toxic agreements!
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photos: @BBC: Belgian farmers dumping milk, more here ; @WochitNews
Note to editors:
* It should be noted that GMOs issued from new mutagenesis techniques from Canada already arrive without any labelling or variety identification in EU ports and circulate, in violation of EU GMO regulations. Rapeseed and soybean derived from these techniques (oligonucleotide-directed mutagenesis in this case) are grown in Canada and the USA (linked to Canada by another FTA). The ECJ ruling of 25 July requires the EU to regulate GMOs derived from these new mutagenesis techniques and therefore to assess them and then label them in the event of authorisation for release. Canada, for its part, does not regulate them. This problem can only be solved when the EU decides to equip itself with the means to identify them.
** Not every government in the EU has been willing to voluntarily straight-jacket its own power. In September 2017, as a conditionality to ratify CETA, the Belgian government asked the European Court of Justice (ECJ) for its view on the compatibility of the ISDS with EU law, this as part of a deal struck between the Belgian Federal government and its regional parliament of Wallonia, after the latter had threatened to block CETA. On January 29, 2019, the ECJ is expected to give its opinion.
Berit Thomson – http://s2bnetwork.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Making-sense-of-CETA-2018.pdf