What is CETA?
The Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) is a free trade agreement between the European Union and Canada. As the EU agreed to CETA back in 2017 and most of the agreement has been provisionally applied and implemented since then, the political argument is no longer about CETA itself.
Discussions are now focused on the part of CETA which hasn’t been passed: Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS), rebranded as Investor Court System (ICS). This is an arbitration mechanism which allows companies to sue States for laws or other policies that could impact the company’s (potential) profits without the State being able to challenge the ruling in national or EU courts. Ireland is not currently signed up to any such mechanisms.
In 2017 the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that agreements to introduce ISDS cannot be decided at EU level but instead have to be considered and decided by each EU Member State.
Why are we discussing CETA now?
Last December, as Covid-19 cases were spiking and all conversations were focused on convincing the Government to start caring, the Oireachtas schedule was released saying that the Dáil debate to ratify CETA would take place on the Tuesday before Christmas. Luckily, someone noticed and there was enough of an outcry for Eamon Ryan to persuade the rest of Government to postpone the vote.
And why is Ireland trying to ratify CETA now? Well, that’s not entirely clear. Leo Varadkar’s responses to recent parliamentary questions are that the Government was waiting for the ECJ to make a decision on CETA’s compatibility with EU law and wants to impress the newly appointed European Commission Chief Trade Enforcement Officer. If you follow that link beware, the response is 1,800 words long, of which 460 relate to the question and less than one paragraph actually answers it.
But this still doesn’t explain why now. Only half of Member States have ratified so far. There’s no deadline for ratification and no pressure from any source for Ireland to rush.The Tortoise Shack held a live discussion about CETA on Friday and panelists suggested that the push is happening now simply because the Government has its majority and doesn’t have to call an election for another four years.
How do I find out more?
No matter how much those in power try convincing us that we’re all idiots who just don’t understand, there’s a tonne of resources out there for anyone trying to get to grips with issues pertaining to the environment, workers rights, and other impacts of CETA and the ICS.
The first step is to take a look at @Ciaraíoch’s new image, which is a really clear framework for understanding the process going on.
The next step is to check out Comhlámh’s CETA ICS Fact Checker. This is a six-page briefing note that updates the amendments which have happened since ISDS became a completely toxic term which had to be replaced with ICS. It provides clear and simple responses to “some of the assertions and misunderstandings there are about the decision facing Ireland”. The Fact Checker will give you responses for anyone saying not to worry about CETA because the State can still regulate (of course it can, it’s a state), that the new version is more transparent and supported by the ECJ, or that the ICS is just a normal part of modern trade agreements.
Then, head over to Slí Eile’s seminar on CETA and the ICS. It’s almost two hours long but includes everything from the colonial history of investment treaties to Ireland’s comprador class and examples of the chilling effect in Irish government, how REITS could make a fortune, and current international agreements that specifically don’t include ISDS mechanisms. There’s also a lot of detail on why the supposed changes are nothing to be writing home about.
If that’s not enough, Maynooth University’s Oisin Suttle explains in the Business Post that “the issue with investment protection is that there is no plausible problem to which it is the solution”, showing that investment treaties are not tools for attracting foreign investment. He also looks at the implications of being stuck with the ICS for 20 years even if the rest of CETA is terminated.
On environment-specific questions, the academic Sinéad Mercier recently highlighted that “ratifying CETA/ICS will also make overriding existing licences to protect wildlife more difficult. In 2 famous WTO Dispute Settlement cases, fishing restrictions to protect endangered sea-turtles & dolphins were ruled to be undermining [international] trade law.”
Seán McCabe of TASC has also explained that “to argue the 2019 ECJ decision or CETA text guarantee states remain free to direct their own legislation is to fundamentally misunderstand/misrepresent the strategic purpose behind ICS and its chilling effect”. McCabe shows how the purpose of an ICS case is not always to win, but simply to intimidate.
Then have a listen to Senator Alice-Mary Higgins over on The Echo Chamber Podcast. Over the course of 34 minutes she makes the argument that Ireland shouldn’t be rushing this through. There’s a number of processes taking place where agreements are seeking to reduce vulnerability to ISDS, making it a strange time to increase Ireland’s vulnerability. And of course there’s that thorny issue of democracy. Signing up should involve a long, protracted public discussion on whether this is the best decision we could be making right now.
And if that’s all too much Climate Case Ireland has a helpful thread. With memes.
Why would anyone support this?
After reading, watching and listening to all of the above resources it might come across as odd that anyone would support CETA and specifically the ICS. Let’s be honest, Fine Gael are Fine Gael. They’d rather destroy their own political party than build public housing. And they were so insistent on joining PESCO that they ignored civil servants saying it didn’t represent value for money. They’ll do anything for their ideology.
Fianna Fáil mostly seem to want everyone to forget that they’re in government.
And as the Greens were vocally opposed to CETA when they were in opposition they’ve had to try everything from insisting that ICS is very different to ISDS to saying that this is how you show you’re a big boy now. As if inviting the Troika in wasn’t example enough. Green Party senator Pauline O’Reilly wrote what will definitely be in the running for the most condescending article of 2021. According to O’Reilly, those opposing CETA do so because they just can’t get their childish little heads around the big ideas of governing.
What can I do?
If you’re worried about what’s going on with CETA you can stay up to date by following Stop CETA Ireland. Uplift also has a sign-up sheet for anyone looking to find others keen on opposing CETA in their local area.
Fridays For Future Ireland is calling on supporters to call your TD. Extinction Rebellion has been organising motions at council level. While abolishing CETA and all mechanisms for companies to sue states might be the long-term goal, it’s probably easier at this point to let your local TD or councillor know that you want to stop the rush and have a full, open and democratic public discussion through an Oireachtas Committee.