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European Commission rejects citizens' initiative on CETA

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Photo: Sébastien Bertrand/flickr

The European Commission -- the executive arm of the European Union tasked with negotiating trade agreements, including the Canada-EU CETA and the US-EU TTIP -- rejected a European-wide citizens' initiative on the controversial trade deals.

The European Citizens' Initiative (ECI) against the TTIP and CETA, which was supported by 230 organizations from 21 EU member states called on the European Commission "to recommend to the Council to repeal the negotiating mandate for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and not to conclude the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA)."

The Commission refused to register the initiative, claiming that "The proposed citizens' initiative falls manifestly outside the framework of the Commission's powers to submit a proposal for a legal act of the Union for the purpose of implementing the Treaties."

Organizers of the initiative condemned the decision of the Commission, calling it just another reflection of the anti-democratic nature of the two trans-Atlantic trade and investment agreements currently being negotiated.

"Now the battle really begins," said Michael Efler, one of the main organizers of the the ECI. "The rejection of the ECI only confirms the Commission's strategy to exclude citizens and parliaments from the TTIP and CETA negotiations. Instead of paying attention to citizens, it is just lobbyists that are being listened to."

John Hillary of the U.K.-based NGO War On Want, one of the organizations involved in the ECI called the decision to reject the initiative "outrageous."

"These trade deals are already facing unprecedented opposition for their secrecy and unaccountability," said Hillary. "But now we are denied even the right to petition our own EU leaders. An unelected executive, facing growing vocal opposition, has put its hands over its ears."

ECIs, while non-binding, are a way for the citizens of Europe to engage with the European Commission and to participate in the development of polices in the EU. Once registered and accepted, ECIs must collect at least one million signatures from citizens in at least seven EU member states within a one-year time period. Organizers of the European Citizens' Initiative (ECI) against the TTIP and CETA had planned to start the process of collecting signatures later this month.

The rejection of the ECI comes as concern in Europe about the impact of corporate-rights agreements like CETA and TTIP is growing, largely due to the inclusion of investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) clauses which allow corporations to sue governments for policies or regulations that interfere with their profits.

In response to widespread public concern about ISDS, the commission was forced to halt negotiations with the U.S. on investor-state provisions in TTIP while it conducted a three-month-long EU-wide consultation on ISDS. The consultation received almost 150,000 contributions -- including from the Council of Canadians and other Canadian organizations -- the most ever for an EU consultation.

The text of the CETA investment chapter was used in the consultation as a template for TTIP, and many in Europe rightly see CETA as nothing more than a Trojan Horse for TTIP. Despite this, however, the Commission ignored calls to put off finalization of the CETA negotiations until after the responses to the consultation were analyzed, leading many in Europe to criticize the consultations as nothing more than a public relations exercise.

With expectations that CETA negotiations will be officially closed in a ceremony in Ottawa on September 25 or 26, and despite the fact that a German news outlet has already leaked the full final text of CETA, there has still been no official CETA text released on either side of the Atlantic in the more than five years of negotiations, and no opportunity for citizen consultation or participation. TTIP negotiations are happening under a similar veil of secrecy.

But despite this latest setback for efforts to force democracy into the process of trade negotiations, the organizers of the ECI aren't giving up. Armed with a legal opinion supporting the initiative, organizers are now considering taking legal action against the decision through the European Court of Justice.

"Apparently the Commission is afraid of this ECI, which has the potential to become the most successful citizens' initiative so far," said Efler. "If the Brussels bureaucracy thinks that this is how it can stop people's protests against TTIP and CETA, then it is mistaken. We will not allow the Commission to tie our hands. "

Photo: Sébastien Bertrand/flickr

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