The news that the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union has undoubtedly come as a shock to many. Clearly, the institutions dreamt up by Altiero Spinelli, Ernesto Rossi and Robert Schuman are unable to anticipate the future wishes of a European population traumatized by almost 10 years of financial crisis, a migrant crisis caused by short-sighted policies, and an inclusive welfare model that is now very much under threat.
How did it come to this? Leaving strictly economic considerations, which have had a great deal of coverage recently, aside for a moment, I think that we have to go back to the central feature of any political and social system: democracy and public involvement in decision-making. The European project is today governed by finance: everything happens because “the markets require it” and all too often citizens take second place to economic mechanisms implemented far away from representative bodies. The economy needs to go back to being a means, not an end.
This is epitomized by the fact that Juncker, less than a week on from the UK vote, has been quick to stress that talks on the two trade agreements with the US and Canada, TTIP and CETA, will continue unhindered and that they concern Europe and not the Member states and so, in his view, do not need to be ratified by parliaments. Given that this statement is dubious also from a legal point of view, and considering that public health is the responsibility of the Member States and that TTIP and CETA, as they also cover food, fall well within the jurisdiction of Member States, we are dealing with two agreements that will have a huge impact on the life of European citizens, which will change the rules in terms of what can and cannot be done and which will have an impact on many aspects of citizens’ daily lives. Despite the importance of this, there has been little or no public debate, documents have remained secret for a long time and only now are they starting to be made public, though only partially, after pressure from civil society. This is not the citizens’ Europe, and we cannot start again from this Europe.
While lifting customs duties and tariffs may make sense for manufacturing and services, when it comes to food we need to tread very carefully, because we’re dealing with different quality standards, protection of local products, food safety criteria and production methods. The reasoning behind TTIP and CETA is to do away with tariff and non-tariff barriers that slow down transatlantic trade or make it expensive. But what are non-tariff barriers? They are essentially rules, which, through TTIP and CETA, need to be harmonized to reach common standards. But rules mean rights and protections for citizens, so it is an extremely delicate and intrinsically “democratic” subject.
Harmonizing two radically different legal approaches (the US adopts the principle of acceptable risk, Europe the precautionary principle, as defined at the 1992 Rio conference) risks creating a race to the bottom, obviously all in the name of facilitating trade. To take an example, in Europe products that contain genetically modified organisms must be labeled, a rule that does not apply in the United States. In a case like that, what does “harmonization” mean? And what about hormones used in meat production, which are banned in Europe but not in the US? Not to mention geographic indications and European designations of origin, which currently clash with the fact that in Canada and the United States it is permitted to produce and sell wine labeled as champagne or port, and even Parma ham, where the city of Parma has become a registered trademark.
The list goes on, but what is interesting is that there was little or no democratic involvement in defining the terms of the treaty: there’s no discussion about the methods, no discussion about merit, not even any discussion about whether or not it’s right to sign agreements of this kind.
Most of the food that we produce, sell and eat is safe thanks to the European Union and its rules which, as they cover the community as a whole and don’t cease to apply at national borders, provide a guarantee for everyone. If we have to call these achievements into question, it would at least be worth knowing about it and being able to discuss it openly, with all the facts to hand. Otherwise, it won’t be the British vote or the financial crisis that brings the Union crashing down, as much as a chronic lack of functional democracy that, at the earliest opportunity, as in the UK last Thursday, sees neglected citizens footing the bill.
from La Repubblica, 4 July 2016