image credit Derek Bridges

How much of a threat are opaque trade deals?

After a rousing speech to the parliament of the Belgian federal region of Wallonia, in which he declared his opposition to the comprehensive economic and trade agreement (CETA) between the EU and Canada, Paul Magnette was fêted across Europe as a valiant democrat.

Leading his region into opposition to the treaty earned Wallonia countless international headlines, the solidarity of thousands of EU citizens, and the glamour of praise from would-be EU reformer Yanis Varoufakis. For the briefest moment, it looked as though this treaty – which will see national governments threatened with legal action in secret courts if their legislation is deemed inimical to the profits of Canadian corporations – had been sunk by the concerted action of civil society in a hitherto unremarkable corner of the EU. The people – whose loss the ratification of this treaty would ultimately be – had spoken, had triumphed.

Then, of course, came the pressure. The very same pressure to which Greece was subjected last year: the pressure of powerful economic interests played to the tune of meaningless sophisms. Whereas in Greece those interests felt strong enough to openly undermine democracy, to dictate that the Syriza government transform a firm ‘no’ into a binding ‘yes’, in Wallonia they used the language of ‘accord’, of ‘agreement’. With a text barely modified and a handful of hollow promises, Magnette ceded his opposition to the treaty in a volte-face that struck a note of horror, but not of surprise, in those who recognise the limits of political reformism.

Among these was the Worker’s Party of Belgium, whose spokesperson Raoul Hedebouw decried the anti-democratic state of the union and the pressure exercised in order to impose these controversial deals, saying: ‘[this is a] European Union which doesn’t accept any form of open debate, which only accepts debates when we say yes. Today this pressure must be denounced because it is contrary to a democratic vision of the […] European Union.’

Now that it is only a matter of time before CETA is implemented, we are told that the equally aggressive and fundamentally antidemocratic TTIP faces no real obstacles to its resurrection. This ought to be a matter of concern for all of us, Brexit or no Brexit, because these free-trade agreements are high-watermarks in the practical application of neoliberal ideology. TTIP was defeated the first time round because of mass mobilisation and the damning impact of the suffocating secrecy in which it and its negotiations were shrouded, but those same financial interests which bulldozed opposition to CETA will now feel emboldened, will now consider the atmosphere more ‘business-friendly’.

Like so much corrosive chloride, big business is gnawing away at the chest-plate of democracy in a thoroughly modern fashion. Just as warfare is now conducted asymmetrically, so is the onslaught on our rights and institutions. Though it is taking place under our very noses, we grow used to the sight of these little green men of political economy – these technocrats and bureaucrats firing on all cylinders – and we have no idea who the enemy is, how far they aim to go, nor even how far they have gone.  There is a reason these trade agreements between capitalist powers are conducted in secrecy, and that is because they have no regard whatsoever for social democracy and fear what an open avowal of their contempt – all at once – would incite. The problem, then, is not the secrecy; the problem is the one per cent.

Image credit: Derek Bridges

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