EU Commission is ignoring critique of the lack of transparency and democratic legitimacy of CETA committees
Brussels/Berlin, 7 July 2021: he European consumer organisation foodwatch is asserting that the EU’s trade agreement with Canada (CETA) is a threat to food safety and public health. In a letter to the EU Commission, the organisation wrote that health inspection standards, such as the frequency of import controls, "can be lowered at any time" by decisions of the CETA joint committee. According to foodwatch, such decisions could undermine sanitary and phytosanitary standards and result in "insufficient health protection for consumers in the EU". foodwatch’s arguments are based on a legal opinion that was prepared by Dr Wolfgang Weiß, professor of international law at the University of Speyer, describing a number of serious democratic deficits in CETA that could have negative consequences for health and consumer protection in Europe.
In February, foodwatch wrote a letter to the EU Commission, sharing its concerns about the transparency and democratic legitimacy of the CETA committees. However, the Commission’s reply, signed by Matthias Jorgensen, Head of Unit for USA and Canada at DG TRADE, did not address the arguments put forward by foodwatch and therefore failed to ease the organisation’s concerns that the CETA joint committee will be able to amend the agreement and lower food and health standards in the EU. According to foodwatch, the Commission’s claim that "the EU and the EU alone" determines the standards of health protection for products is simply false. In addition, the Commission also failed to acknowledge the fact that the CETA committee could not be considered transparent unless detailed minutes of its meetings were published. This transparency is especially relevant because, although the committee lacks democratic legitimacy and does not consist of elected representatives, it can make far-reaching decisions.
"The EU Commission's lazy excuses show: CETA is a threat to democracy and to our public health system. It is shocking that the Commission would ignore a legal opinion identifying the shortcomings of CETA - for example, the insufficient democratic control over committee decisions and the danger of lowering or freezing health standards. In doing so, the Commission is creating distrust among EU citizens towards its own trade policy and feeding further Euroscepticism," said foodwatch International’s Executive Director Thilo Bode. "CETA must be stopped and replaced by a trade deal that is based on transparent negotiations, creates fair trade conditions and serves the prosperity of all European citizens instead of large corporations."
CETA, as a so-called modern trade agreement, not only delivers tariff reductions, but also seeks to eliminate "non-tariff barriers" (NTBs). These NTBs – including standards of consumer, health and environmental protection – can be recognised as "equivalent" under the agreement in order to reduce international trade impediments. However, these decisions are made not by elected representatives, but by government officials in the CETA committees. Moreover, any decision made by these CETA committees cannot be unilaterally overturned by the EU, a fact that Dr Weiß identified as particularly concerning. For example, even if the EU states were to agree to tighten mutually recognized safety standards for pesticides through the committees, this decision could not apply to Canadian products without Canadian consent. This is because any rules that contradict CETA commitments are "automatically a violation of international law." Thus, CETA could "effectively freeze standards of protection."
The CETA agreement between the EU and Canada has been provisionally applied since 2017 but has not been ratified by all EU member states. If a single country votes against its ratification, CETA will be off the table. In Germany, the Bundestag has yet to give its approval.