by Martin Konecny and Alexandra Strickner

There is a long history of resistance to neoliberal trade and investment policy, which exclusively serves the interests of corporations. As early as the late 1990s, the OECD countries had begun participating in secret negotiations to seek parallel justice for corporations, but a networked transnational movement of trade unions and civil society actors brought down the planned “Multilateral Agreement on Investment” (MAI). In 1999, tens of thousands of activists in the US city of Seattle blocked the launch of a new round of WTO negotiations on the further liberalisation of world trade. The “Battle of Seattle” is now regarded as the birth of the anti-globalisation movement.

By the beginning of the 2000s, resistance was directed mainly against the further liberalisation of world trade and services within the framework of the WTO – and it was successful, since the negotiations that had been launched in 2001 eventually petered out. By 2008, it had become clear that the WTO-level deregulation that was sought, among others, by the EU and the US, would not be feasible. It was at this point that the EU turned its attention to bilateral and regional trade agreements such as TTIP and CETA.

How much success has the movement against TTIP and CETA had so far?

The deregulation of trade and the creation of parallel justice for corporations – the latter of which has been codified in the form of the “Investor State Dispute Settlement” (ISDS) – have been successfully delegitimised as core EU projects. The establishment of neoliberal economic policies and the enshrining of special rights for corporations in internationally binding agreements has long been one of the EU elites’ key political strategies. The movement against TTIP and CETA stripped this core project of its legitimacy and put its supporters on the defensive. Moreover, this success was not limited solely to Western European member states with a historic tradition of trade policy struggles. Civic platforms were also established in Central and Eastern Europe to inform the public about the agreements and build resistance against them.

The European Federation for Investment Law and Arbitration, a lobby organisation for ISDS, described 2016 as an “annus horribilis” for supporters of investment protection. Not only this, but the EU’s entire neoliberal trade and investment policy suffered several severe setbacks. TTIP negotiations have been on hold since 2016. In several key EU countries, such as France, Germany and Austria, members of the government were forced to declare the agreement a non-starter. In addition to the upcoming elections at the time, the main reason for this was huge pressure from grassroots level.

TTIP and CETA were the flagships of the elites’ strategy of using the economic crisis to further entrench neoliberal EU integration. The movement against these trade agreements has greatly weakened this core project and, for the time being, succeeded in stepping on the brakes. But with Trump establishing tariffs for several EU products in late spring 2018, the EU Commission and member states are now trying to find a way to reopen negotiations. Resistance will continue to be vital.

Resistance has increased its social base

In the early 2000s, opposition to neoliberal trade agreements came primarily from civil society organisations such as Attac, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace. It also came from sections of the unions and radical smallholder farmers. When the movement against TTIP and CETA occurred, resistance became broader than ever before. Thousands of small and medium-sized enterprises joined the movement, as did hundreds of local authorities. This is remarkable in two ways.

Firstly, an alliance in which unions work with small and medium-sized enterprises has rarely been seen in history, and a movement that brings together so many different actors can set a precedent for future struggles in other fields. Secondly, farmers and small- and medium-sized enterprises began to organise from below in defiance of their official representatives, who actually support TTIP, CETA and other similar agreements. This was the case in countries such as Austria, Germany and the UK, where initiatives like “Businesses against TTIP” and “Farmers against TTIP” emerged. In the case of Austria, both the Chamber of Agriculture and the Chamber of Commerce had long worked to appease smaller business owners and farmers so as to be able to quietly enforce policies against their interests. This instrument of power has been weakened.

The authoritarian nature of EU policy is becoming ever more apparent.

The tug-of-war over the ratification of CETA opened many people’s eyes. They were able to recognise, with an unprecedented level of clarity, the means with which political elites were enforcing their neoliberal policies.

Originally, CETA was to be ratified without the participation of national parliaments – even though all political levels, from the nation state to the smallest of local authorities, would have felt the effects. The criticism regarding privileged rights for foreign investors forced several governments, including those in France, Germany and Austria, to take action against it. In the end, they declared that before CETA could enter into permanent and full force, it would need to be ratified not only by governments and the European Parliament, but by all 38 national and regional parliaments. Much of the agreement has been applied “provisionally” since September 2017, but the provisions on foreign investors’ privileges to sue governments (Investor-Court-System) have not. This is an achievement of pressure from below.

After this partial victory on the process of ratification, CETA was met with great resistance at every turn, including its signing by the individual governments. Austria’s then-Federal Chancellor Christian Kern, who had objected to the agreement, was placed under enormous pressure not to block it. After that, the former Minister-President of Wallonia, Paul Magnette, was placed under the same pressure, but on a world stage. In the lead-up to the vote in the EU Parliament, leaders did their utmost to push through the agreement as quickly as possible and without debate. It was only after protests from civil society actors and opposition that some committees were able to deliver opinions.

CETA is currently in the final phase of ratification, which means it is not yet fully in force. The majority of member states are yet to ratify the agreement; in fact, in several countries, the process of ratification has not even started. In addition, the European Court Justice (ECJ) may decide, in early 2019, that the investment protection in CETA creates a parallel justice system and therefore violates EU law. If the ECJ rules against the inclusion of ICS in CETA, this could bring the whole agreement to a collapse.

Even if CETA has not yet been stopped, the dispute has struck the neoliberal agenda with two major setbacks. First, it has become clear to what extent individual governments can be pressured and threatened if they try to stand in the way of neoliberal policies. Second, the elites themselves have been forced to bow to the weak democratic standards of EU policy in order to force their agenda, thereby discrediting themselves in the eyes of many people. This may pay dividends in future conflicts.

Challenges and possible courses of action

The movement against TTIP and CETA is much more than just an alliance against these two agreements. Rather, it unites the many actors across many different locations who are working for a fundamental reorganisation of the economy and society. This includes changing the rules of world trade.

The elites are swinging the “Trump club”.

The ratification of CETA in the EU Parliament signalled the beginning of a new phase for the movement – that is, preventing the passing of CETA by the 38 regional and national parliaments. But Trump’s election as US president changed the political context. Now, the EU elites are attempting to delegitimise the opposition to CETA and TTIP by equating its critics with Trump, Le Pen and Co. They have even gone as far as to pronounce CETA an alternative to Trump’s America First policy. In this narrative, CETA is a “progressive” antidote to Trump’s attempts to destroy the multilateral trading system. In reality, however, CETA is just another cog in the neoliberal wheel, one that threatens more and more people with social regression and drives them into the arms of the right.

Even in Europe, the extreme right has sought and will continue to seek to misappropriate the opposition to TTIP and CETA in election campaigns, such as was the case in Austria and France. This represents a misuse of years of thorough work by European movements. Generally speaking, the extreme right only positions itself against such agreements for the purpose of their public statements. Once in government, they back the interests of various capital groups (depending on the country) and seek to implement a neoliberal economic policy.

The best example of this is the far-right FPÖ in Austria. During their election campaign, they promised voters they would hold a referendum on CETA. Now, in government with the conservative party, they have pushed through its rapid ratification. Even Trump himself is not, in principle, against trade agreements that serve corporations – as long as they are American and he can argue that he is representing national interests. The extreme right likewise has no alternatives to offer. It has no connection with the vision of just and fair world trade that is proposed by the global resistance movement.

The movement must develop a positive vision.

In order to differentiate itself from the extreme right and make use of the vacuum created following the standstill of TTIP and CETA, the movement must focus consolidating the positive vision of another world and another way of organising our economy and society. Within this vision, trade and investment must be a means to achieving a good life for all.

An initial priority should be the fight to democratise EU trade and investment policies. In this regard, it is important to remember that the processes used to form TTIP-style agreements consist of several steps. Every single one of these steps must be democratised, from the decision on the negotiating mandate to the negotiating phase and the adoption of a decision. In addition, we need to design an investment policy that is oriented towards the interests of people and nature and does not restrict democratic scope for action. This requires an overarching utopia. This utopian vision might be the good life for all.

The movement against TTIP and CETA has access to a diverse range of knowledge and the capacity for broad consensus and creative resistance. It also has access to a shared willingness for pursuing diverse strategies and for sharing ideas and engaging in cooperation. If the movement continues to focus on these strengths, it will be possible to deepen the existing fault lines and prevent the so-called “free trade agenda”. At the same time, the movement can make an important contribution to promoting alternatives from below. Several of the Stop-TTIP platforms in different countries have recently taken the step of transforming themselves into platforms for just trade and just globalisation. In doing so, they have helped to develop a new narrative and formulate the next steps for building on past successes.

What can other movements learn from the resistance to TTIP and CETA?

Place democracy at the centre of the struggle – but do it in the right way!

The fight against TTIP and CETA is a fight for democracy – in two different ways. First, it is about ensuring that trade agreements can no longer be negotiated behind closed doors and rushed through the parliaments. Such agreements have profound effects on the everyday lives of people and on the political scope for action afforded to states and communities. As such, they must be publicly discussed and agreed upon across as broad a spectrum of society as possible. Secondly, the fight is about defending society against the erosion of democracy. Agreements such as TTIP and CETA restrict the scope of democracy. They create a parallel justice system that allows foreign investors – mostly transnational corporations – to file cases against states for billions if they consider laws and regulations to be limiting their profits.

For many, the aim of defending and expanding democracy is a key reason for engaging in the fight against these agreements. The problem is not that people are demoralised – they are simply in need of specific reasons and concrete options for action. Other initiatives, such as DiEM25, also focus on the question of democracy. But while they push generally for more democratic rules at the EU level, the movement against TTIP and CETA has successfully connected the fight for better democracy with tangible issues such as the right to good food, decent wages and good public services. This makes tangible the struggle for the restoration or advancement of democracy – and this change will come from below.

The resistance must be organised across borders – and between different countries and political traditions!

The movement against TTIP and CETA is a positive example of how resistance can be coordinated across Europe and beyond. Organisations that otherwise work predominantly at the national level have come together with groups targeting EU institutions. Together, they have managed to consistently channel their efforts to the areas in which they have the greatest impact. If the situation reaches a peak in a particular country – as it did in autumn 2016, in Austria and then in Belgium – the groups are able to direct their support to local partner organisations. Whenever a vote in the EU parliament is looming, they can coordinate their advocacy work towards MEPs.

This is made possible by the fact that the individual actors have a pragmatic approach to the different levels of politics. Though some are seeking to reform the EU and others are questioning its very existence, when they work together, these differences take a back seat. The decision to prioritise the EU parliament, a national government or a regional parliament at any given moment in time depends not on ideological preferences, but on the respective chances of success. This makes it possible to channel efforts to where they are most worthwhile – jointly and across borders.

Let us not allow our opponents to falsely claim the badge of “internationalism” as their own!

Often, EU elites complain about the population’s lack of interest in EU policy and the lack of a “European spirit”. The movement against TTIP and CETA offers both these things, since people are organising themselves across borders to fight for common interests at EU level. The fact that the political and media elites still denounce them as “anti-European” says more about these elites than it ever could about the movement. According to the elites’ logic, anyone who opposes a specific member state law would automatically also be against the existence of the respective member state.

International cooperation is a fundamental principle of progressive and leftist politics – whether between movements, parties, cities, regions or states. The problem is that in current public debate, only one form of cross-border cooperation is valued or made visible: that of EU institutions. At the same time, these institutions are structured so as to be shielded as effectively as possible from pressure from below, enabling neoliberal policies to be enforced easily against majority interests. In light of this, we should not allow the EU to falsely misappropriate the principle of internationalism. Collaboration across borders works best without the EU institutions, or even working against them.

Even ostensibly minor topics can make a difference!

A common criticism of the campaign against TTIP and CETA is that trade is too narrow an issue to occupy so many resources. Other areas of EU policy, such as economic or refugee policy, are more profound and important in their impact. Certainly, it is true that TTIP and CETA are not the only dangers we face – and perhaps not even the most important. At the same time however, the inherent dangers of the agreements threaten far more than just trade: they risk democracy, the rule of law, agriculture and food quality, climate and environment, jobs and labour rights, public services, small and medium-sized enterprises and much more.

Moreover, there is an undeniable strategic argument for making TTIP and CETA (or trade policy) the central focus of a campaign. Firstly, trade impacts the interests of a greater number of social groups than virtually any other area of policy – and thus offers the opportunity for new, broad alliances. Secondly, the agreements lend themselves effectively to making the consequences of neoliberal policies tangible in the everyday lives of the population. Thirdly, the mode in which the agreements are required to be adopted at EU level – with the explicit agreement of all EU member states – provides a lever for social movements. It makes it possible to mobilise people throughout the entire EU, even far from centres of power such as Brussels, Berlin and Paris. As a result, trade and investment policy is better suited than, for example, tax policy for throwing sand into the neoliberal EU gearbox.

Choose issues that affect people’s daily lives!

How does a major movement come about? In countries such as Greece and Spain, it was the EU’s austerity policy that led to widespread opposition. The resulting movements had the power to defeat the prevailing politics. In Greece, the left-wing Syriza government succeeded, at least in the short term, in challenging the European elite. Ruling powers in other countries are on similarly shaky ground. The above-mentioned examples make clear how repressive the EU elites can be against democratic resistance and grassroots alternatives.

In contrast to Spain and Greece, countries such as Germany and Austria had, until recently, seen relatively low levels of resistance to austerity policies. The harshness and injustice of such policies had remained too abstract and too far away. With TTIP and CETA, this changed. Movements emerged opposing the neoliberal EU policies that exclusively serve the interests of corporations.

Real, easily imaginable threats must be made visible in order to mobilise people to tear down these policies. In Spain, people experienced first-hand what austerity means – including the unjust loss of their own homes. In Austria, it is the dangers that runaway globalisation poses to food, jobs and public services that bring people to the streets.

For the future, we must examine the question of how the various resistance movements can network and thereby gain strength together. Which area of policy could be the catalyst? One potential focal point could be the attacks on the rule of law, freedom and democracy that are currently increasing at both the national and the EU level. Cutbacks and trade policies threaten these achievements, as do new surveillance measures and the restriction of fundamental democratic rights in the name of combating terrorism. Organising ourselves against this authoritarian turnaround is not only necessary, but makes political sense, too.

Three lessons

  1. Criticism and protests against EU politics is not inherently nationalistic. Resistance to TTIP and CETA has brought people together across borders.
  2. Successful resistance must be anchored in the realities of people’s lives. If this is the case, it is possible to organise resistance to a whole range of supposedly sophisticated issues.
  3. In order to facilitate broad cooperation, it is necessary to agree on central points of criticism or alternatives that work in harmony. It also important to agree on resources that facilitate a minimum level of collaborative work.

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