New Dutch referendum looms targeting EU-Canada pact

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (left) and European Council President Donald Tusk at the EU-Canada summit during signing of the agreement on the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) in Brussels, Belgium on Oct 30. PHOTO: EPA

THE HAGUE (AFP) - Dutch activists said on Saturday they have garnered nearly two-thirds of the signatures needed to force the government to hold a referendum on the new EU-Canada trade pact, in what may prove a fresh setback to the deal.

The controversial accord, seven years in the making, was finally signed last weekend in Brussels after it was held up by last-minute resistance from a Belgian region.

But the agreement now has to go back to most member states of the European Union for ratification.

Grassroots groups in The Netherlands are calling for a referendum on whether parliament here should ratify the giant Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), as well as a Transatlantic deal with the United States known as TTIP.

A petition launched in October 2015 has collected more than 190,400 signatures out of the 300,000 needed to compel the government to organise a referendum on the issue.

"We want to make it clear to politicians that TTIP and CETA are in our view agreements and treaties that should be more openly discussed and should be drastically changed," Niesco Dubbelboer, from the Meer Democratie (More Democracy) movement, told AFP.

Such treaties are "old-fashioned, post-colonial agreements where the interests of big investors and companies" dominate, he said, arguing the interests of "climate and sustainability should be more in the forefront" in negotiations.

His group has joined forces with the Dutch environmental group Milieudefensie, a group called Foodwatch, and another non-profit organisation called the Transnational Institute.

The news comes only months after voters in April rejected a key EU-Ukraine cooperation pact in a similar referendum.

The Netherlands is now the only country yet to ratify the deal with Kiev in a major embarrassment to the 28-member EU which has left Prime Minister Mark Rutte struggling to find a compromise.

April's vote, which just scraped the turnout level needed to be valid, was organised by Dutch eurosceptic groups and widely seen as a blow to the EU, pummelled a few months later by the Brexit vote in Britain.

But the organisers of the CETA petition say they are not anti-Europe. "I am pro-EU, not anti-EU," Dubbelboer told AFP.

He added: "But I do think that Europe should be more democratic." "A lot of people already feel that decision-making is far away from them, because of Europe. And accords such as CETA and TTIP actually put the decision-making even further away."

However, any referendum on the trade deals remains many months away and would likely only come, if the 300,000 signatures are reached, after March general elections in The Netherlands.

The CETA deal will remove 99 per cent of customs duties between the two sides, linking the single EU market of 28 nations with the world's 10th largest economy.

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