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Alternatives to Atlantic trade agreements: Ethical trade and sovereign democracy
- Languages: de

Negotiations over trade agreements between the European Union and the USA (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, henceforth TTIP) and the European Union and Canada (Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, henceforth CETA) have shown how undemocratic procedures engender frustration, are damaging to democracy itself, and ultimately produce a transient outcome.




  • If trade endangers human dignity, human rights, solidarity, justice or cultural diversity, then it can be limited

  • More than three million EU citizens supported a petition proposing that the Council be stripped of its right to negotiate a trade agreement

  • TTIP creates major new structures and greater inequality, while reducing cultural diversity and sustainability



The spirit guiding those who initiated and negotiated the TTIP agreement involved a very strange conception of democracy: trade was elevated above the real values and aims of the EU and its member states.


Trade interests predominate in policy related to agriculture, environment, consumer protection, energy and resources. They influence the provision of public services, the negotiation of contracts, and even the legislative process.


If democratic regulation is only permitted to restrict trade as much as is strictly “necessary”, then trade becomes a higher value than those of human dignity, human rights, solidarity, justice or cultural diversity.


There is no support for such an inversion in the population as a whole. In universities and public lectures I regularly present and evaluate alternatives to the conception of free trade, measuring various proposals against the resistance which they meet (“systemic consent”).


The idea that trade is an end in itself always meets almost as much resistance as the protectionist principle that “trade is bad”. By contrast, the alternative postulate of ethical trade (“trade as a means to an end”) seldom meets with much resistance.


If trade promotes basic values and higher political ends such as sustainable development, conformity with human rights, social solidarity or cultural diversity, then any increase in trade is welcome. If on the other hand trade endangers these ends, then it can be limited.


The European Council and the European Commission have other priorities. The effects of their exercising a questionable mandate to conduct negotiations goes unexamined; a problem exacerbated by the fact that members of the Council are not directly elected, and so lack legitimacy as representatives of the EU.


Sovereignty is the prerogative of the EU electorate; and in the case of these trade negotiations, efforts were made to express this sovereign will. More than three million EU citizens supported a petition proposing that the Council be stripped of its right to negotiate a trade agreement.


But the Commissioners, who like the members of the Council are nominees of the governments of member states and so not directly elected, have the power to declare such a petition void, which they did.


The rules by which the Commission conducts negotiations are also undemocratic. If they invoke confidentiality, there is nothing anyone can do about it. The importance assigned to transparency and democracy in Brussels is demonstrated by the way in which EU parliamentarians are only permitted to briefly examine materials, and to do so must surrender their mobile phones and are allowed only a pencil to take notes.


Of a piece with this is the intention of a former Trade Commissioner, Karel de Gucht, to persuade the European Court to rule that national parliaments should be prevented from voting on the outcome of negotiations.


What might a more adequate democratic process look like, as contrasted to this medieval scenario? The first step could be to provide the sovereign will of the people with mandatory powers in national constitutions and EU treaties.


For example, it could be laid down that economic and commercial agreements had to serve higher political aims such as sustainable development, human rights, social solidarity and cultural diversity.


Such a direct democratic mandate would presuppose that the popular will was sovereign with respect to constitutions and EU treaties. In a “sovereign democracy” of this kind the most significant documents should be written by the highest instance.


This kind of framework could confer upon the European Parliament powers of direct and legitimate representation of the popular will, with the right to mandate negotiations on international economic agreements.


A concrete mandate of this kind would have to be reviewed as a legislative proposal by the European Court in its function as guardian of the EU treaties.


This could in turn mean that three independent bodies would have to review the effects of a planned agreement in regard to the political goals established by sovereign popular will. It is very likely that the TTIP would fail such a test: it creates major new structures and greater inequality, while reducing cultural diversity and sustainability.


If the European Court were to give the green light to a plausible mandate, then negotiations would have to be conducted according to rules that were also in conformity with the popular will – in this case, quite probably transparency and the involvement of all those populations affected.


At present, the Commission meets whoever it will and has no need to give account of itself in so doing. In Brussels, it is the lobbyists with money who have free reign, not the common good. And the final step would be: the outcome would have to be voted on by the body in whose name negotiations had been conducted and which was ultimately supposed to be the beneficiary: the sovereign popular will of the European Union, in a general European plebiscite.


If TTIP did really meet popular values and priorities, then it would certainly be welcomed and accepted.


Translated by Keith Tribe


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