As published in the National Post:
The documents arrived at the Bundesverfassungsgericht on Wednesday: 70 bankers’ boxes containing more than 125,000 signed powers-of-attorney, passed from person to person along a human chain to the doors of the courthouse. The BVerfG, as it’s known for short, is Germany’s highest constitutional court, and the NGOs that delivered the documents to the court were filing what they claim is the largest constitutional challenge in the country’s history. Its goal is to stop the proposed free trade agreement between Canada and the European Union.
September could prove the pivotal month for the Canada and European Union Comprehensive Economic and Free Trade Agreement (CETA), and Germany could be the key battleground as the treaty’s fate is decided.
Wednesday’s constitutional challenge marks the latest in a series of anti-trade moves by German citizens, non-profits and politicians alike, and comes at a crucial moment for CETA. The deal is meant to be signed at the Canada-EU summit on Oct. 27. In a push to get the deal done by then, the Liberal government last week named former federal trade minister and business consultant Pierre Pettigrew its new “CETA envoy.”
But the same sentiment growing in Germany and other European states that this week jeopardized the United States’ pending free trade deal with the EU has put CETA at risk as well, and made clear the challenge facing Pettigrew and the Canadian negotiators.
CETA would eliminate almost all tariffs between Canada and the world’s largest economy, with its 28 member states, 500 million consumers and economic activity valued at $18 trillion. Negotiated by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government and signed in principle in 2013 by Harper and then-European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, the deal’s final approval has been slowed by questions of whether it needs to be ratified by the EU’s individual member states as well as the European Parliament and European Council.
The constitutional challenge filed Wednesday contends that aspects of CETA circumvent Germany’s parliament. Particularly controversial are the rights granted to foreign investors under the chapter of the deal outlining the settlement of disputes between investors and member states. Though Canada amended the agreement last winter in an attempt to address the criticism, Frank Bsirske, chairman of ver.di — with 2.2 million members one of the largest trade unions in Germany — worries the deal still privileges the treatment of foreign investors over the independence of the German government, preventing politicians and policymakers from acting in the German public interest.
“(These agreements) constitute an entirely new generation of trade deals that go far beyond the mere elimination of classical tariffs,” said Bsirske. Such treaties “are cutting deeply into public policy space by targeting so-called non-tariff barriers to trade, granting excessive rights to foreign investors and including more and more services to the deal.”
The deal’s opponents have also raised concerns over the potential erosion of consumer protections and food safety.
Birske’s union is helping to organize a day of protest on Sept. 17 that is expected to draw “hundreds of thousands” to marches across the country that will demand an immediate end to negotiations on both the Canadian and American deals.
One of the largest rallies is expected in the capital of Berlin, whose mayor, Michael Mueller, last week had choice words for the agreement: “I have serious concerns about CETA,” he told the Berliner Morgenpost. “Unless there are dramatic developments and improvements over the next few weeks, I don’t think we can support this in Berlin.”
“The NGOs out marching in the streets, the court challenges, these groups, they only matter insomuch as they can really sway politicians to change their tone,” said Jason Langrish, executive director of the Canada Europe Roundtable for Business, an advocacy group that has been deeply involved with the Canada-EU trade deal negotiations.
“You want to get this agreement voted and ratified in the European Parliament relatively early in 2017, because then you start going into national elections in Germany and France and who knows what’s going to happen there.
“Germany voting against anything hurts the credibility of anything the EU wants to do,” he said. “They’re the de facto base of Europe.”
The protests in mid-September will come just two days before Canadian Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland is scheduled in Wolfsburg to speak to the German Social Democratic Party, one of two members of the country’s governing grand coalition and the major party most affiliated with the country’s trade unions and progressive voters. She will then visit Slovakia to attend a meeting with all EU trade ministers.
“The prime minister and Minister Freeland have been actively persuading key European leaders on the merits of the deal since they were sworn in last November,” said Anne-Louise Chauvette, director of communications in the trade minister’s office.
“We always knew the year ahead would be critical for CETA advocacy work.”
But the deal seems to become an even tougher sell with each passing week. Bulgaria and Romania have said they will not support it without a Canadian visa exemption. Poland, Greece and Belgium have also signaled they will not ratify the current deal.
CETA’s proponents remain undaunted. “They’re not going to allow this deal to fall because of this,” said Langrish.
But the boxes stacked outside the BVerfG on Wednesday represent just one of many obstacles they still have to overcome.