Why trade deals like CETA have become a 'whipping boy' for anti-globalization forces

The backlash against CETA may be symptomatic of growing anti-globalization sentiments and has played a role in the decision by Belgium's Wallonia socialist government to scuttle the trade pact between Canada and the EU.

Wallonia in Belgium the lone holdout in the Canada-EU trade pact

The backlash against CETA may be symptomatic of growing anti-globalization sentiments. (Markus Schreiber/Associated Press)

Globalization has always had its critics — there's nothing new there, says Fen Hampson, professor of international affairs at Carleton University's Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.

But given the problems Europe is experiencing now, with high levels of unemployment, particularly among youth, it's not surprising that free trade deals like the Canada-EU CETA have become "a whipping boy for very unhappy people who are out of work," Hampson said.

And that's why the backlash against the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, he said, is symptomatic of growing anti-globalization sentiments, and may well have played a role in the decision by Belgium's Wallonia socialist government to scuttle the trade pact between Canada and the 28-nation bloc.

'Under political attack'

"The Canada-EU setback underlines just how much free trade is under political attack," Andrew Hammond, an associate at the Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy at the London School of Economics, wrote in the Globe and Mail. "If CETA collapses, it could set precedent for the demise of TTIP [Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership] and also indicate significant problems ahead for any Brexit deal."

Wallonia, a francophone region with a population of 3.5 million, has been the lone holdout over approval of the trade pact. Local politicians have argued that the proposed deal would undermine labour, environment and consumer standards and allow multinationals to crush local companies.

A demonstrator is led away by a policeman as he holds a poster reading 'Stop TTIP Stop CETA' ahead of an emergency meeting of all Belgium federal entities on the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement in Brussels on Monday. (Emmanuel Dunand/Getty Images)

But Wallonia is also an economically depressed area. And as Canadian scholar Daniel Béland, who has studied Belgian federalism, told the CBC's Don Pittis, the anti-trade message resonates with some voters there, much like it has with Donald Trump supporters in parts of the U.S.

It also resonates in other parts of Europe. Protests against CETA and TTIP have been held in a number of European cities.

"Those who do support globalization, which includes many of the European leaders, have not a made an effective case to their own people about the importance of open markets," Hampson said.

Dan Ciuriak, an international trade expert and senior fellow with the Centre for International Governance Innovation, said that much like the first casualty of war is truth, the first casualty of a recession is trade.

"So combine the long period of slow jobless growth and you have a natural reaction against globalization."

But the bigger issue around globalization is the issue of sovereignty and who gets to decide what the rules should be within a country, said Armine Yalnizyan, a senior economist for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

That's why we are seeing pushback against these deals, such as CETA and TPP, which are not primarily about trade, she said.

"It's primarily about investment and rewriting the rules of capital and labour mobility for the benefit of corporations," she said. "And people are starting to get really kind of freaked out about that." 

'A handy little label'

But Robert Wolfe, a professor at Queen University's School of Policy Studies, suggested that the so-called anti-globalization furor may not be representative of the population as a whole.

"Knowing you have lots of protests in the streets makes for colourful news stories, it doesn't necessarily tell you much about what is actually going on in public opinion," he said.

The issue, he said, is not actually about globalization, in the sense that people truly understand it and don't like it.

Instead, Wolfe said, these so-called anti-globalization opponents are really saying that as a result of what's going on in the world, "we're living in a more unequal society where lots of people are not included or doing well financially."

"Globalization has become a handy little label which nobody really understands. It's just been been plunked on stuff that says globalization has done this to you."

Global trade critics

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The Walloon government may very well have been reading a lot of anti-globalization critiques of CETA and may think there is a broad political point to be made here, Wolfe said. 

Yet, despite protests in some of their major cities, every other EU nation has accepted the deal.

But Hampson suggested that "short-term tactical politics" may be at play here. He pointed out that initially it was agreed that CETA would only need the approval by the EU's Council of Ministers. But with political pressure from a number of leaders, including France and Germany, who would be facing re-election next year, the decision was made to submit the pact for approval of 28 national legislators.

"They knew full well this was going to be running a gauntlet even under the best of circumstances and it gets them off of a sticky wicket," he said. "If CETA is derailed now, elections can be fought on other issues and it takes the politicians off the hook." 

With files from The Associated Press