Pieter de Pous is EU policy director at the European Environmental Bureau.
If we are to believe the remaining Social Democrat leaders in the European Parliament, the days of the infamous ‘Grand Coalition’ with the Conservatives and Liberals are now over.
Given the poor performance of socialist parties in national and regional elections and referendums, most recently in Italy, and their weak showing in polls across Europe, it is hardly surprising that they are looking for ways to sharpen their profile, yet the most imminent and effective opportunity for them to do so has been staring them in the face for months.
Early next year, the European Parliament will finally vote to approve or reject the trade deal that the EU has finalised with Canada, now well known as CETA.
Since the summer, the deal has found itself in rough waters and was nearly derailed in September when the Belgian region of Wallonia came out in opposition to it. Indeed, its ultimate fate still depends on it receiving the seal of approval from national parliaments as well as the Parliament.
The role of the social democrats throughout this period has been ambiguous. After fierce internal debates, they effectively followed a muddled approach: on the one hand adopting ‘Ten progressive S&D principles for a new era of trade agreements’, while on the other hand deciding that CETA meets those ten principles.
However, as research by Greenpeace shows, the final CETA text in no way meets these criteria. The potential economic benefits of the deal are marginal at best and it contains no mechanisms to compensate those likely to lose out.
Furthermore, its plans for regulatory cooperation and investment protection will effectively undermine the EU’s right to regulate in the public interest. And, far from having removed the controversial Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) from CETA, policymakers have simply replaced it with a system that retains the same critical flaws.
The Parliament’s Social Affairs Committee this week adopted an opinion against CETA, underlining the likely negative socio-economic effects of the deal. It cited forecasts which suggest it will, at best, increase employment by a mere 0.018% over a six-to-ten year period, with some studies forecasting that CETA will cause the loss of 240,000 jobs across the EU, including 45,000 in France, 42,000 in Italy and 19,000 in Germany.
The report from the Committee also shows that the deal will increase the income gap between skilled and unskilled workers.
Abandoning this muddled approach on trade in favour of a crystal clear rejection of CETA would provide social democratic lawmakers with the opportunity they desperately need to profile themselves and start offering citizens a real choice among the parties huddling together in the centre.
Political leaders of all colours who see themselves as defending liberal democracy have concluded after each recent electoral shock that business as usual is no longer an option. Yet when it comes to trade, they are consciously doing just that – hence the rush to vote, backed by the socialists, on CETA after Wallonia nearly sunk the deal.
If leading social democrats now truly believe that it is in the interest of their own party and European democracy to end the ‘Grand Coalition’ with the conservatives and liberals, the most convincing way of doing so would be to vote against CETA next year in plenary.
A rejection of CETA would not be the end of the EU as many are now claiming. Instead, such a vote would show that the social democrats have understood that trade deals like this and TTIP need to be consigned to the past.
Instead, in their place there should be a new trading system that reflects the climate and environmental challenges the world is facing, helps to create local jobs, and offers an intelligent and rational answer to citizens looking for answers in an increasingly hysterical political world.
It would also offer an approach behind which all parties that still believe in defending liberal democracy should be able to unite.