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State of the Left Austria

The tug of war over Ceta

Gerhard Marchl - 20 October 2016

Elevating the issue of the Canadian-European trade deal may prove to have been a mistake for Austria’s Socialist party

Austria is still waiting for its new president. After the decision of the constitutional court on 1 July that the run-off presidential elections must be repeated, the re-run was scheduled for 2 October. Then, at the beginning of September, it became clearer and clearer that a considerable number of envelopes for postal ballots had been defective. Consequently, the Austrian parliament decided to postpone the repetition of the run-off between Alexander Van der Bellen, the winner of the elections on 22 May, and Norbert Hofer until 4 December. This means that the new president will be inaugurated in January 2017 – at the earliest.

While the electoral campaign between far-right candidate Hofer from the Freedom party (FPÖ) and Van der Bellen from the Green party will not regain intensity before November, the discussion on the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) has been playing an important role in the Austrian political scene in the last few weeks. The topic has been pushed by Chancellor Christian Kern and his Social Democrats and it remains unclear whether this strategy will benefit the party.

Ceta and especially TTIP have been important issues in Austria for several years. Austrians, Belgians, and Germans are probably the most Ceta-sceptic nations within the European Union. Surveys in September confirmed the negative attitude of the population. According to a poll of the Austrian Society for European Politics, 73 per cent oppose Ceta, only 11 perc ent are in favour of it, and the rest are undecided.

Especially the Austrian trade unions (generally very close to the Social Democrats), the Chamber of Labour, a vast majority of farmers, ecologists, and many NGOs such as Global 2000, Attac, and Greenpeace are fervent opponents of the agreement with Canada. As for political parties, the Greens and the FPÖ reject Ceta altogether, and the Social democratic party of Austria (SPÖ) is very critical of several points of the agreement. The conservative Austrian People’s party (ÖVP), SPÖ’s partner in the grand coalition, and the liberal party Neos are in favour of the treaty with Canada.

The SPÖ in particular objects to the establishment of a permanent multilateral investment court and criticises the lack of transparency. In addition, it fears that the treaty in its present state will cause the end of the precautionary principle as well as the decline of ecological and consumer protection standards. In order to get more backing for its positions, the party conducted an online survey on Ceta among its members. More than 14,000 (out of 200,000) members and about 9,000 non-members participated. The questions, however, were perceived as simplistic and biased by some critics. Nevertheless, the result was unambiguous and impressive: 88 per cent voted against the provisional application of Ceta; 92 per cent opposed the implementation of the agreement if it contains provisions on arbitrary courts; and 98 per cent object to Ceta if the treaty leads to lower quality standards in Europe.

The intended effect was met: Chancellor Kern was able to put more pressure on the European commission and the ÖVP in order to get some concessions. Meanwhile, with regard to concerns in Austria, Belgium, Germany, and the European parliament, and with respect to the anti-Ceta movement across Europe, the European commission, the EU member states and Canada agreed to draft an additional declaration of the agreement that is an attempt to pacify critics. The text has not been officially published yet, but it seems to make clear several points: the investment court system is to enter into force only after ratification of the agreement by all national parliaments; the precautionary principle is to remain untouched; ecological and social standards are not to be jeopardised. Opinions on the text’s impact differ: whereas critics argue that it is a mere interpretative declaration that does not change the treaty itself, others put emphasis on concessions made by the commission and Canada.

Consequently, the SPÖ and Chancellor Kern were in a difficult situation last week. They had to adopt a final position on whether Austria should sign the EU-Canada trade agreement and agree to the provisional application in the EU Foreign Affairs (Trade) Council on 18 October. The pressure was huge, on the one hand from their own party members, the trade unions, the anti-CETA-movement, the Austrian tabloid media, and the main opposition parties, on the other hand from the ÖVP, the industry, and presumably many European partners who are in favour of the agreement.

In the end, on 14 October, the Austrian Social Democrats decided not to block Ceta, but Kern added that several issues still need clarification before ratification by the Austrian parliament. He did not rule out that the SPÖ could eventually oppose the agreement.

Unsurprisingly, this decision splits opinions again: Some within and also outside the SPÖ are disappointed, others defend it as the only possible approach. However, there is room for doubt whether it made sense for the SPÖ and its chairman to conduct the Ceta member survey and, by doing so, to put even more emphasis on Ceta. This strengthened Austria’s negotiation power, but there is a risk that the whole debate does not benefit Christian Kern – one of the most popular politicians in Austria for the moment – and his party.

Gerhard Marchl is head of the department of European politics at the Karl Renner Institut

This article is a contribution to State of the Left – Policy Network's regular insight bulletin reporting from across the world of social democratic politics

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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