EU ministers took steps on Friday to approve a contentious free trade deal with Canada, while a growing number said talks towards a similar agreement with the United States should stop.
Both deals have triggered protests by unions and environmental and other groups who say they will spark a ‘race to the bottom’ in labour and public health standards and allow big business to challenge governments across Europe
After a first session devoted to the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) struck with Canada two years ago but still awaiting approval, ministers agreed the two sides would put together a declaration spelling out the limits of the pact to dispel public concerns.
The ministers themselves are expected now to convene an extraordinary meeting on October 18, allowing the deal to be signed during the visit of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to Brussels on October 27. It could enter force next year.
“There was a great willingness to sign the agreement in October … There are still some things to do, but it was a very good debate,” Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s economy minister and vice-chancellor, told reporters.
Gabriel on Monday overcame left-wing resistance to the deal within his Social Democrats, the junior coalition partners in government.
However, lingering doubts remain elsewhere, notably in Austria, where Chancellor Christian Kern’s Social Democrats have grave concern, and Belgium, where not all regions back the deal.
Reinhold Mitterlehner, Austria’s Christian Democrat vice chancellor, said a declaration making clear that public services and labour and environmental standards were not under threat and that a special court would not allow big business to dictate public policy should allay concerns.
Mitterlehner also argued again for a fresh start to be made to the EU-US Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) talks, which have been going on for the past three-and-a-half years.
He said they should be ended and relaunched after the US presidential elections with greater transparency, clearer goals and a different name
“In our view, and this is also the view of other countries, the current procedure will not lead to success,” he said.
Washington and Brussels are officially committed to sealing this deal before President Barack Obama leaves office in January.
But their chances of doing so are remote given approaching elections on both sides of the Atlantic, Britain’s vote in June to leave the European Union and powerful calls for a fresh start from European powers including France.
Czech industry and trade minister Jan Mladek said in a tweet that Austria and France had called on Friday for an immediate termination of TTIP talks.
Some ministers spelt out the difference between concessions granted by Canada and what they said was US intransigence.
“If the Americans are not ready to meet at least the standard of CETA, with Canada, then there will be no chance of a deal,” said Gabriel.
EU trade chief Cecelia Malmstrom denied TTIP was dead.
“The likelihood of a quick conclusion is of course becoming smaller and smaller, but it makes all the sense in the world to continue to talk and to make as much progress as possible,” she said.
Outside the ministers’ meeting in Bratislava, around 100 local trade unions and Friends of the Earth activists held banners, mostly in English and German, denouncing CETA and TTIP. On the other side of the Danube river, Greenpeace unveiled a large banner on the top of a tower reading “No TTIP”.