The Government has ushered in the controversial EU-Canada free trade agreement the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement CETA under the cloak of darkness amidst serious concerns on human rights, public health and rule of law.
Despite the Secretary of State for International Trade Liam Fox’s promise of Parliamentary debate and full scrutiny it was voted in by a small group of MPs in a committee room – buried in a Fox hole beneath the Brexit storm. Next Wednesday the European Parliament will vote on CETA and the UK Parliament has been calling for a full Parliamentary debate since Liam Fox signed the Provisional Agreement without parliamentary consent three and a half months ago.
But it was only last Wednesday, amidst the mad rush to table amendments to the Government’s Brexit Bill, crammed into three days of debates, that I received an email requiring that I sit on the ‘European B Committee’ to represent the European Scrutiny Committee on Monday. It emerged that during the Brexit amendment debates in Parliament the secretive ‘European B Committee’ was to decide on whether the UK should ratify CETA.
CETA opens the door for Investor Court Systems which would allow transnational companies to sue governments for laws they pass to protect public health, the environment and rights at work which undermine future profits. Such powers have been used by Phillip Morris against plain cigarette packaging in Australia, by fizzy drinks manufacturers to fine Mexico against a sugar tax to reduce diabetes, against Egypt for introducing minimum wages and by fracking company Lone Pine to sue Canada for a fracking moratorium in Quebec.
In October I’d grilled Liam Fox, the Secretary of State for International Trade, on the European Scrutiny Committee, about CETA. On that day he promised MPs that a full Parliamentary debate on the floor of the House would be held before the UK ratifies the treaty.
Instead, Wednesday’s email made clear that this important debate was to be confined to a committee room and silenced by the noise and fury of the Brexit debate in the main Chamber. The Government had effectively hidden the CETA debate away from the public eye at a time when MPs and the media are focused on Brexit.
So now we risk sleep-walking into CETA’s Investor Court System which empowers corporate interests to fine and intimidate Governments for introducing public policies which protect the environment, food safety, public health and social rights. This threatens to undermine the rule of law, human rights and democracy as well as our public services.
ICS is not only dangerous but simply unnecessary as investors are already protected by three levels of courts in both the EU and Canada. The EU has national law courts, European law and the European Court of Human Rights and Canada provides Provincial Courts, Appeals Courts and the Canadian Supreme Court which protect investors in both directions without giving them special powers.
So I moved an amendment, supported by the Labour front-bench, the SNP and Green Party MPs that the ratification of CETA should be decided by Parliament following a full debate in the Chamber. It was voted down, thanks to Government whips, which means we’re to sign up to what will be a 20 year deal binding futures U.K. Governments even after Brexit. So much for taking control; this is a case of losing control of our sovereignty and trading our democracy and liberty into the pockets of transnational companies.
Correctly framed CETA could be a blue-print for fair trade that supports our Paris environmental commitments and protects our public services, health and human rights. Instead, by rail-roading democracy behind closed doors, the Tories are putting our fundamental values at risk. Tragically it will turn out to be a cut in the dark that won’t stop bleeding.
Geraint Davies MP Swansea West
European Scrutiny Committee
Council of Europe
Photo: Mirko Milovanovic / Flickr