Socialist reversal on CETA stirs waters on EU trade deals

Demonstration in Brussels against TTIP and CETA free-trade deals. File Photo: Reuters via Público

• PSOE abstention on CETA pact sets off centre-right alarms in Madrid, Brussels
• Spanish NGOS, labour unions pressure Socialists to vote against trade accord

The announcement last week by the Socialist party (PSOE) that it was withdrawing support for the ratification of the EU-Canada free-trade deal known as CETA (Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement) has garnered criticism and scorn from Spain’s right-wing parties, won the support from leftwing parties, labour unions and non-governmental organizations and caused concern at the highest levels in Brussels that the tide could well turn against the deal as the ratification process wends its way through 27 European parliaments.

In a decision expected to be confirmed today by the Socialist leadership, the party announced last week that its 85 deputies in Congress will abstain tomorrow in a vote to ratify the CETA accord. The decision is seen by analysts as more of a move by the PSOE to align itself clearly on the left of the political spectrum for domestic political reasons — both to fend off criticism by rival leftwing party Podemos (We Can) of the Socialists’ drift to the neoliberal center in recent years and to garner favour with the PSOE’s historic supporters within the Spanish labour movement on the issue of free-trade, which Spain’s unions strongly oppose.

The change in the PSOE position coincides with rising populist sentiment against globalisation and regional free-trade deals, with criticism of the trade pacts coming both from the political left and nationalist right-wing parties across Europe. It also comes as the top U.S. trade negotiator is indicating the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump may be willing to re-open negotiations on the controversial U.S.-Europe free-trade deal known as the TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership).

Spanish President Mariano Rajoy of the conservative governing Partido Popular (PP) hit back at the PSOE almost immediately, calling the Socialists decision to abstain on the CETA vote an error and saying Spain would look ridiculous if it did not ratify the treaty. Centre-right party Ciudadanos criticised the move as further demonstrating an ideological shift of the PSOE toward Podemos. Even the lead European social-democrat negotiator on the CETA accord issued a thinly veiled rebuke, saying the PSOE should reconsider and calling the deal “a good, progressive accord between Europe and a country that shares our values.”

By Monday, however, the Socialists were under further pressure from their political left to come out fully against the free-trade deal with Canada, as a a coalition of 330 Spanish NGOs and labour unions issued a letter calling on all political parties represented in Spain’s Congress to vote against the CETA accord. Appreciative of the PSOE’s decision to abstain in Tuesday’s vote, the coalition nevertheless enlisted the support of the PSOE’s French, Canadian and British social-democrat sister parties to urge the Spanish Socialists to issue a full rejection of the EU-Canada deal by voting “No” in Congress on Tuesday.

► Read More in Spanish at Público, El Diario and El Economista …

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