by Bert De Belder writing for the Workers’ Party of Belgium
picture by Sophie Lerouge
In the story about the Walloons blocking the free trade agreement with Canada, the so-called Ceta, several analysts are discussing the role of the emerging PTB-PVDA (Workers’ Party of Belgium). We asked the chairman of the left party how he sees things.
PTB-PVDA Chairman Peter Mertens on the free trade agreement with Canada (Ceta)
Peter Mertens. “The European Union was already preparing to sign the free trade agreement with Canada with much fanfare. While this agreement would have far-reaching consequences for Europe, for its people and for the climate, the European establishment was not really planning to mince many words on the treaty. Until the government of the Walloon Region spoiled the party. A debate was held there, and immediately the international media touched down in Namur (the seat of the Walloon government) and Brussels. Belgium in the eye of the storm, with at its helm the social-democratic prime minister Paul Magnette.”
“This tells a lot about how the European Union functions. At first months of secret negotiations, then in a hurry and top-down a take-it-or-leave-it agreement, and finally blackmail and political pressure. For what fundamental debate did we get in Flanders (another Belgian region) on this treaty? None at all. Neither in other countries. We should be glad that the Walloon regional government sounded the alarm, and by doing so rendered a democratic debate possible.”
“The fear of the establishment parties for this debate is apparent. They want to impose an economic herd behaviour: ‘because they are all doing it, it means it must be good’. Not so. From the very beginning thousands of NGOs, trade unions, consumers and environment organizations have put serious criticisms on the table. Throughout Europe, millions have demonstrated against Ceta and its big brother TTIP, the free trade treaty with the United States. And because today suddenly a real debate is on the table, as a result of the Walloon blockade, the establishment is crying foul.”
How do you evaluate this political blockade?
Peter Mertens. “The position of the Walloon regional government is correct and courageous. Our PTB representatives in the Walloon parliament support this resistance and the essential criticisms on the Ceta treaty. Minister President Magnette and the Walloon regional government are now insulted and put under pressure by the puppets of big industry from Belgium, the entire European Union and Canada. This is a mockery of a democratic process. Flemish nationalists have always pleaded for more powers to be accorded to the regions. But once a region uses those powers, they don’t like it either. They shouldn’t complain. Among the population, there is no support base for this agreement, not in Wallonia, not in the rest of the country, and neither in Europe.”
In other countries though, a political agreement on the free trade deal has been reached.
Peter Mertens. “Indeed, among the political caste. There you have a large unity of thought. But this unity of thought is confined within the four walls of some parliaments. That does not mean there is one among the people, of course. That’s an error of judgment we should avoid. In fact, a European referendum should be organized whenever agreements with such an impact are concerned. But they don’t. Instead they engage in arm-twisting and other attacks against the Walloon government. The disrespect of regional and national democratic processes in Europe is enormous. We had observed this earlier already, when the French ‘no’ against the European Constitution was simply relegated to the trash can. The constitution was imposed anyhow, be it with another name. We likewise observed this in Greece, that was in no way allowed to make its own choices for its economy. Ultimately, they even decided to starve the Greek banks in order to push through the absurd austerity and privatization policies. Now they want to do the same with Wallonia. They are already pondering an ‘interpretative declaration’ to be attached to the treaty. Yeah, great, they will have a good laugh with that in the headquarters of big industry. Such a declaration has no legal value whatsoever, all experts in international law and trade agree on this. Over the next hours and days, we may expect more of the same type of fake solutions to offer Magnette a fake way out.”
In Belgium your party is surging, in the country’s three regions, but mainly in Wallonia. Foreign Minister Didier Reynders of the neo-liberal MR says without hesitation that the PTB’s increase in the polls is the reason behind the resistance of the Parti Socialiste (PS) against Ceta. This would force the PS to position itself more to the Left. Is that so?
Peter Mertens. “Certain political commentators like to draw a picture of Wallonia as a big exception in Europe. The Flemish parties in government cry foul and describe it as harassment against the Rightist federal government, in which the PS is not represented. But again: let a European referendum be held. Let the people speak out. In September 2016 in Germany, 320,000 people demonstrated against the free trade agreements with the US (TTIP) and Canada (Ceta), in Brussels on 20 September there were 10,000. The majority of French are of the opinion that the TTIP negotiations should be stopped. Apart from the Walloon and Brussels regional governments and the government of the French community in Belgium, also the Irish Senate gave its government the advice to vote against Ceta. And in Austria, Slovenia, Poland and Germany, no final green light has yet been given. A Europe-wide petition gathered more than 3 million signatures, a European record.”
The question was whether your party is the reason behind the Walloon ‘no’ against Ceta.
Peter Mertens. “No, we are not the reason. The protest movement against Ceta and TTIP in our country is very broad: mutual social insurance organizations, North-South solidarity movements, trade unions, consumer groups, small and medium enterprises, peasants, women’s movements, climate activists, judges, you name it. Of course with the PTB-PVDA we have always supported the resistance, as has done the group of the GUE/NGL (European United Left/Nordic Green Left) in the European Parliament.
And of course you cannot deny the particular situation in Wallonia and in Brussels where our party, according to the latest opinion polls, could become the third party, in Wallonia even reaching 16 percent. This naturally influences the positioning of the Parti Socialiste, having a hard time to play a dual role. For the previous federal government, led by this same PS, didn’t have any problem giving our country a mandate for negotiations on free trade deals with the US and Canada. Prime Minister Di Rupo himself attached his signature to it. This the Socialist Party cannot do today, which may be partly because of the pressure from the PTB. But more essential is that the resistance has a broad basis. Pressure is coming bottom-up, which is of course very well.”
Why should we reject free trade agreements such as Ceta (Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement) and TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, between the European Union and the United States)?
Peter Mertens. “They will not help us overcome the European crisis. That’s an illusion, a fake solution, a wild rush forward. One of the major elements in the European crisis is the policy of low salaries and austerity that is being implemented everywhere in Europe, as demanded by Germany. The result is a catastrophe. Who can seriously think that we will solve the problem with a free trade agreement with Canada? The American Tufts University did research into the consequences of Ceta on jobs, and found a loss of 200,000 jobs. The phenomenon of social dumping, which we are already observing in Europe, will increase. Instead of harmonizing norms and rules upwards, to protect workers, health and the environment, we risk to slip further down the slope. Canadian civil movements and trade unions are warning us for such risks, as they have experienced those themselves, when they concluded a free trade agreement with the United States and Mexico, the so-called Nafta. The results: closures, restructurings, lower wages and worse working conditions. The downward spiral. The Canadian Caterpillar plant was closed and moved to the US, where lower wages were paid. Next: yet another closure and a move to Mexico, with yet lower wages. Without any hindrance. Is that what we want? The same goes for the standards we apply regarding the environment and health. Behind these treaties, you’ll find the harsh logic of competition, something that cannot be denied by neoliberals as (former EU Trade Commissioner) De Gucht. This means that all standards will be pushed downwards instead of upwards.”
The campaign against Ceta and TTIP also warns for the special court system that is part of the agreements (‘Investment Court System’ for Ceta, Investor State Dispute Settlement for TTIP).
Peter Mertens. “Transnational corporations can sue a country before a special court when national laws are considered to harm the big industry’s interests. On the basis of similar trade treaties, the Egyptian government got sued by the multinational Veolia for having introduced a minimum wage. The Swedish company Vattenfall demanded from Germany a compensation of 4.7 billion euro because the Germans had decided to exit from nuclear energy, after the Fukushima nuclear disaster. And the US company Ethyl Corporation sued the Canadian government because it wanted to prohibit the use of the toxic additive MMT in gasoline. All in all, worldwide we have already seen some 700 court cases in which a company sued a government, costing the latter billions of euros in legal expenses and tenfold that amount in compensation payments for the corporations. Special courts for big industry are courts of exception, and they don’t have their place in a democracy. You cannot give in one inch on this issue, unless of course you want common people not to have any say at all anymore.”