Trade Officials Push for Canada-EU Deal's Ratification, Despite Hurdles

14 April 2016

Trade officials are pressing for the ratification of a bilateral EU-Canada trade pact to occur this year, amid continued public scepticism and a separate row over visa-free travel that some officials say could be damaging to the FTA approval process.

Negotiations for the trade deal, known formally as the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), were completed in 2014, following over six years of negotiations. Earlier this year, the EU and Canada announced that they had revised the investment protection terms of the trade deal during a “legal scrub” process, incorporating an “investment court system” that the 28-nation bloc is advocating should become a standard feature of its future trade agreements. (See Bridges Weekly, 3 March 2016)

Officials at the time touted the changes as a sign that negotiators were taking into account public concerns, given the heated controversy over the earlier investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanism that was previously part of the trade pact. However, some critics have said that the changes are insufficient to resolve their concerns.

EU and Canadian trade officials also confirmed that they would be aiming to sign the CETA this year, in order for the pact to enter into force the year following. Speaking to The Parliament Magazine last week, Canadian Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland affirmed that her country’s government is still aiming to see the deal move forward in the near-term.

“The agreement is a key priority for me and I am committed to seeing it enter into force in 2017,” she told the EU-focused publication. The Canadian official is visit Germany this week as part of a trip aimed at promoting the trade pact, according to a media advisory issued by her office.

She will also be meeting with the European Parliament’s International Trade Committee (INTA) for an “exchange of views” on 20 April.

The Canadian trade official added that she is “confident that Canadians and Europeans will recognise that CETA is a truly gold-standard agreement, reflecting our desire to strengthen our trade and commercial ties, while building upon our shared values.”

However, ratifying the trade deal is an intricate process, varying depending on a country or bloc’s domestic laws on treaty-making.

For example, on the EU side, approval is needed by the European Parliament after signature from the Council. Whether CETA needs approval by national parliaments as well, however, depends on whether the agreement is dubbed a “mixed agreement” falling both under the Union’s exclusive competences and those which are shared by member states. This currently remains an open question.

Whether the public controversies over CETA will scupper the deal’s ultimate ratification remains to be seen. In a potential sign of future difficulty, the Wallonian Parliament – the legislature for the self-governing Wallonia region in Belgium – voted on a resolution this Wednesday against giving the country’s federal government the power to sign CETA without receiving additional guarantees on issues such as dispute settlement, according to Belgian newspaper La Libre.

Visa reciprocity issue

Separately, a disagreement between the EU and various countries – the US, Canada, and Brunei – over visa reciprocity is heating up, after the European Commission delayed a decision on whether to suspend visa-free travel from those countries to the 28-nation bloc.

At issue is the fact that some EU member states – such as Bulgaria and Romania – are required to seek a visa to enter those countries. Specifically, while Canada requires a visa from citizens of those two countries, the US also requires it from Croatian, Cypriot, and Polish nationals, while Brunei only requires a visa from citizens of Croatia.

The Commission had a 12 April deadline to decide whether to enact a temporary suspension of the current visa waiver. However, the EU’s executive arm moved to delay this decision, citing the need to hold further talks with the other EU institutions, namely the Parliament and the Council.

“Visa reciprocity is a fundamental element of the EU's common visa policy,” said EU Home Affairs, Migration and Citizenship Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos on Tuesday. “Today, the Commission has assessed the legal, political, and economic consequences of a possible temporary suspension of the visa waiver with the US, Canada, and Brunei and has asked for positions on the way forward from the European Parliament and the Council.”

The Commission official added that full visa reciprocity “will stay high on the agenda of our bilateral relations with these countries, and we will continue pursuing a balanced and fair outcome.”

The potential fall-out of the visa issue on other policy areas, including trade, has been raised by some officials in the aftermath of the deadline being missed.

Marie-Anne Coninsx, the EU’s Ambassador to Canada, told media outlets on Tuesday that while there is no official connection between the visa issue and the FTA approval, those EU member states who currently do not benefit from visa reciprocity – such as Bulgaria and Romania – would likely vote against the pact when the time comes for ratification.

“If we don’t have this issue on the table, I guarantee [that the trade deal] will be adopted without any major issue,” she told The Canadian Press.

ICTSD reporting; “Chrystia Freeland: CETA ‘a truly gold standard agreement’,” THE PARLIAMENT MAGAZINE, 5 April 2016; “Canada-EU trade barbs in visa dispute, linking spat to trade deal and tourism,” THE CANADIAN PRESS, 12 April 2016; “Le Parlement wallon veut empêcher le federal de signer l’accord commercial Canada-UE,” LA LIBRE, 12 April 2016; “Démission de Milquet: Magnette espère qu’il n’y aura pas ‘des départs’ dans son équipe,” LA LIBRE, 13 April 2016.

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