EU Parliament backs key free trade deal with Canada

STRASBOURG • The European Parliament backed a contested EU-Canada free trade deal yesterday, facing down protests by activists and Donald Trump-inspired calls for protectionism.

Members of the European Parliament (MEP) meeting in Strasbourg, France, approved the pact with 408 votes in favour, 254 against and 33 abstentions.

Approval by Parliament allows the provisional implementation of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) as early as next month.

European Union states and Canada formally signed the deal last October after seven years of tough talks, overcoming last-minute resistance from a small Belgian region that blocked its national government from approving the accord.

Protests marked the vote, with about 700 people marching outside Parliament to voice their opposition to the deal.

Anti-globalisation activists wearing surgical masks dramatically blocked the entrance to the Parliament building, before being dragged off by riot police.

"Saying yes to Ceta is a trampling of the people," said a banner.

Following the approval by Parliament, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will address the European Parliament in person today.

EU leaders see the deal as a victory for an imperilled global trade system that is under threat from United States President Donald Trump, who opposes international trade deals.

Opponents to the accord slam the deal as a danger to health, democracy and the rule of law.

"Ceta is the best trade agreement the EU has ever concluded. It will bring Canada and Europe even closer together," said German MEP Manfred Weber, the head of the conservative EPP group, the Parliament's biggest bloc.

Ceta will remove 99 per cent of non-farm customs duties between the EU and Canada, a big win for exporters on both sides of the Atlantic.

And unlike classic trade deals, Ceta harmonises regulations on matters such as health and the environment, a big concern for activists.

A major flashpoint for opponents is the proposal to set up special courts to settle disputes between investors and national authorities that is central to the deal.

"Multinationals will be able to attack governments in a privatised court system," said France's far-right presidential candidate and MEP Marine Le Pen, who voted against Ceta.

But the deal's EU negotiator, Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem, told MEPs that "nothing in this agreement undermines a government's right to regulate in the public interest".

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 16, 2017, with the headline 'EU Parliament backs key free trade deal with Canada'. Print Edition | Subscribe