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French senators reject EU-Canada free-trade deal

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Le Monde | 21 March 2024

French senators reject EU-Canada free-trade deal

with AFP

France’s Sénat on Thursday, March 21, overwhelmingly voted against a free-trade agreement between the European Union and Canada after an unusual alliance in the upper house between left- and right-wing opponents of French President Emmanuel Macron.

The Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) has been in force provisionally since 2017, but requires ratification in all European Union member countries to take full effect. Macron and his centrist parliamentary allies managed to get the deal approved in the Assemblée Nationale lower house in 2019 by a slim margin, but backing by the Sénat upper house – where they are in a clear minority – is needed for ratification.

After scenes of tension rarely seen in the upper house, senators voted 211 against and 44 for the treaty and then confirmed the rejection with a second vote. There had been some expectations that opponents of the treaty would run out of time for the confirmation vote but they managed to squeeze it in by racing through the debate.

Although a setback for the government, which backs the treaty, the no-vote does not in itself nullify the agreement. Under EU rules, the rejection is only effective if the government officially notifies the EU, which Macron is not expected to do. The government has not said how it will handle the situation, but one option is to take the treaty back to the Assemblée Nationale for a fresh debate and vote.

The Communist group placed the treaty on Thursday’s Sénat agenda, with the stated aim of getting it defeated. In a rare temporary alliance, the leadership of the conservative Les Républicains (LR) party, which has a majority in the Sénat, also opposed to the trade pact. The entire left and an overwhelming majority of LR voted to reject the agreement. The senators from Macron’s ruling coalition were all absent during the vote.

Foreign Trade Minister Franck Riester, who had already slammed the opposition’s strategy as "an unacceptable manipulation", added after the vote that it had been motivated by electoral considerations ahead of European Parliament elections in June. The Sénat’s non-ratification was "damaging to our economy and our agriculture," Riester said on X, formerly Twitter. The government, he said, would continue to back CETA. "The debate is not over," he said.

Much of the opposition to the pact focused on food, with Bruno Retailleau, LR’s leader in the Sénat, saying that "we need free-trade agreements, but not at the expense of our sovereignty, especially for food."

Ratified by 17 EU countries

Like all EU trade deals, CETA was negotiated by the European Commission, but also needs approval from each EU member. Seventeen of them have ratified the deal, with the process in 10 countries – including France – still ongoing. The United Kingdom ratified the deal when it was still in the EU.

Cyprus’s parliament is the only one to have rejected the agreement outright, over a controversy about a geographical indication for halloumi cheese. Cyprus has not formally notified the EU of the rejection. Instead, it plans to re-submit the proposal later.

Although a no-vote does not in itself kill CETA, the French government worries about the impact of any rejection. "We have to be careful not to send a negative signal concerning an agreement that produces benefits," Riester had warned.

The government accused the opposition of weaponizing CETA ahead of the June European elections. "Let’s not be naive," quipped Riester, saying the trade deal was being "instrumentalized in the middle of the European election campaign."

Food safety

While the French government defended CETA, there has been also plenty of opposition, notably around food safety, with critics pointing to Canada’s laxer approach to genetically modified organisms, hormones, pesticides and herbicides, and lower standards on animal welfare compared to the EU.

There have been angry demonstrations in several EU countries against the deal, including by climate activists. Criticism has also come from farmers and industrial sectors, notably over access to the Canadian market, and regulations.

"Farming in central Canada is completely industrial and operates without any rules," said LR senator and professional farmer Laurent Duplomb, adding he hoped to "fire a warning shot" in the direction of the EU. Senators reported receiving an unusual amount of attention from companies, associations, the government and the Canadian embassy all hoping to sway them.

The trade deal’s backers say French exports to Canada increased by 33% between 2017 and 2023, while imports rose 35%, thanks to the agreement. Wine and dairy producers are among the main beneficiaries, the government says.

 source: Le Monde