CETA, the free trade agreement between the European Union and Canada, is signed. Finally, and against all odds.
The process that culminated in Sunday’s agreement in Brussels reveals how utterly dysfunctional the E.U. has become. Wallonia, a region in Belgium with 3.5 million inhabitants, blew the whole agreement off last week, claiming it could not support CETA in its final form. Since the accord had been under negotiation for seven years, one would think that there were plenty of options available to influence the shape of the deal somewhat earlier.
Just to be clear: There is nothing wrong with voicing concerns or asking for more transparency. But that is very different from holding 500 million European citizens and 36 million Canadians hostage to further one’s personal political ambitions, as was the case with Walloon Minister-President Paul Magnette.
In fact, there is no need for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump to cater to rising populism in the U.S. and promise to push back against America’s trade deals. After all, Brussels is certainly in no position to seal the planned TTIP trade agreement with Washington given the current shape of the E.U.
Discord and national fragmentation are becoming the new chic in Europe, and it will lead nowhere.
Europeans today are very satisfied with themselves, and keep one another busy with national claims and special interests. One is more reminded of mid 19th-century Europe than that of a 21st-century, sophisticated debate. That was the time when Germany alone consisted of a hundred principalities, states and independent cities, each of them having its own administration, customs and “foreign” policy. This cacophony created an ungovernable Europe, whose tensions exploded in World War I.
The success of the Western world order after the end of the Second World War on the contrary rests on multilateralism in politics and free, open trade in economics. These two pillars have opened the door to cultural exchange and mutual understanding between nations. The European Union may be the most visible example of the success of this model, but it has also created the wrecking balls for its ideological foundation.
The claims of right-wing populists today however, the demonization of free trade and – heaven forbid – the free movement of people, are not exclusive to them: They have also arrived at the core of mainstream politics and parties in Europe. The fear among politicians is too strong, and populists are scoring more and more victories across the Continent.
The aftermath of the Brexit referendum, in which characters like Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson lied to the British public, should have led to the abandonment of these gamblers and their arguments, rather than to the reinforcement of their claims from within the sacred core of liberal democracy.
Ironically, the extortion attempt by Wallonia (which has already announced that it will not sign TTIP in its current draft form) may well play into the hands of post-Brexit leaders like U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May. As a result of growing unease, the European nations will become ever more suspicious of one another. If Europe reverts back to the time when narrowly defined national interests dominated the Continent, the United Kingdom will take advantage of the situation.
It is obvious that many European countries will have to seek out more options to safeguard the prosperity of their societies, knowing full well that the veto threat by a single region (not even a country) in Europe could sabotage all of the E.U.’s past achievements. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was right when he recently said that if Europe is unable to sign a progressive trade agreement with a country like Canada, well, then with whom will the Europeans think that they can do business in the years to come?
Drafts, negotiations, criticism, bluffing, round after round, all of that is normal in the political arena. And rightfully so, as there is always much at stake when you are dealing with issues that affect hundreds of millions of people. But discord and national fragmentation are becoming the new chic in Europe, and it will lead nowhere.
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