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French parliament split ahead of EU-Canada trade agreement vote

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Euractiv | 13 March 2024

French parliament split ahead of EU-Canada trade agreement vote

by Hugo Struna

French parliamentarians are sharply divided on whether or not to ratify the EU-Canada free trade agreement, following farming protestors’ heavy condemnation of trade measures that they argue create unfair competition.

The trade agreement between the EU and Canada, officially known as the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), is arriving at the final stages of approval in France’s parliament at a very delicate time.

Signed in October 2016, it has been in provisional application since 2017. The ratification from all member states is required for its full application, namely to allow investment protection.

During the farmers’ demonstrations of recent weeks, free trade agreements have been the subject of fierce criticism, particularly in France, leading French President Emmanuel Macron to oppose the agreement with the Mercosur countries.

CETA abolishes most customs duties. As a “new generation” agreement, it also strengthens cooperation between Canada and the EU in terms of standards and regulation.

To be fully ratified, it must be voted on by the national parliaments. At present, 17 EU member states have ratified the CETA, including Germany. Ten others, including France and Italy, have not yet completed the procedures.

Part of the French parliament – the National Assembly – ratified the agreement in 2019. The other part – the Senate – will vote on CETA on 21 March.

The vote is set to be far from unanimous.

Franck Riester, the Minister Delegate for Foreign Trade, has argued in support of the ratification, explaining that this is “a good agreement” for the French economy and “specifically for agriculture and the agri-food industry”.

However, most MPs of the presidential majority voted against it in the National Assembly five years ago, alongside the left.

“After five long years, enough is enough. Democracy is not variable geometry,” said Fabian Gay, MP for the French Communist Party, which put the vote on the Senate agenda.

For its part, the right – a self-proclaimed advocate for the farming community – also seems to be increasingly opposed to it.

Fears over beef imports

In France, the main concerns are over agricultural products, with representatives of the beef industry fearing an influx of meat that is not subject to European standards.

For Interbev, the beef trade association, CETA “threatens quality standards and European food sovereignty”, and must not be ratified. Interbev calls for the establishment of ‘mirror measures’, a clause that would oblige Canadian producers to comply with the same production standards of the EU.

NGOs and farmers’ organisations also denounced the unfair competition imposed on European farmers.

However, the French government and the European Commission maintain that standards are upheld, as there has – in practice – been almost no Canadian beef imported into the EU since the agreement came into force seven years ago.

Although Canada is currently favouring exports to China, “we know that nothing can be done to protect French cattle farmers once the agreement has been ratified”, particularly if the partner “decides otherwise”, Anne-Cécile Suzanne, a farmer, and Marine Colli, an agricultural public policy consultant, pointed out in an article for Le Figaro.

In their view, given the difficult situation in the French and European beef industry, the arrival of Canadian beef in Europe “could happen much sooner than the government claims”.

They also point to shortcomings in controls on Canadian goods at the EU’s borders. During its most recent audits of the Canadian beef industry, the Commission highlighted traceability problems, particularly concerning hormone-treated beef.

Agricultural benefits

Supporters of CETA point to the economic benefits of seven years of free trade. According to European Commission data, trade between the parties increased by 60%, bringing in €20 billion for EU producers, particularly those sending overseas high-value foodstuff such as cheese, exports of which have almost doubled since 2017.

According to the European Commission’s executive vice-president Valdis Dombrovskis, these results show “that we have been able to put in place effective European measures to protect our sensitive sectors, whether it be quotas, EU health standards or the inclusion of 143 geographical indications in the agreement – 30 of which are French”.

“The CETA is beneficial for the EU, for France and for French farmers,” Dombrovskis said.

Debates in the member states

Italy is one of the member states that has still not approved the agreement in Parliament, with the main ruling party Fratelli d’Italia opposing the ratification in 2018-19 and the biggest national farmers’ organisation Coldiretti campaigning against it.

In March 2023, while reiterating the country’s opposition to the Mercosur trade agreement, Italian minister Francesco Lollobrigida told a national news agency that Rome is “pragmatic” and ready to assess the potential benefits of other agreements. However, no progress has followed.

Germany, which ratified the agreement in December 2022, will be one of the major beneficiaries of the agreement, exporting more of its industry’s products. The country is urging other states to follow suit.

Verena Hubertz, Vice-Chairwoman of the Bundestag group of Germany’s main governing party, the SPD, said last year that she wanted to “lead the way” for the other member countries.

One of the fears in European countries, including Germany, is that Canadian companies will be able to sue member states if they impose stricter environmental laws. To reassure the EU, Canada has committed to the principle of a “climate veto”, to give member states the final say.

 source: Euractiv