Smallest gov't party may sway vote on trade agreement with Canada

Tweede Kamer
The Chairman's seat at the Tweede Kamerphoto: JanKranendonk / DepositPhotos

ChristenUnie, the smallest party in the Rutte III coalition, seems to have the future of the CETA trade agreement between the European Union and Canada in its hands. If the party votes for, there is a small majority for the agreement. ChristenUnie voted against CETA in 2016, but now seems to be changing sides, was revealed in the debate on the trade agreement on Wednesday, and RTL Nieuws report.

CETA abolishes virtually all import duties between Canada and the EU. It was negotiated in 2016, when the Rutte II coalition still held office. The Netherlands could be the first country to reject the treaty - something Minister Sigrid Kaag of Foreign Trade and Development cooperation called "impossible". The official vote is next week. Whether there will be majority support for the treaty is still up in the air.

On Wednesday, ChristenUnie parliamentarian Joel Voordewind spoke of "a dilemma". The Christian party is opposed to trade agreements involving the agricultural sector, but appears to be working for "improvements" and additional safeguards in the CETA agreement. The party wants safeguards to guarantee fair competition, food safety and animal welfare. Voordewind also wants guarantees from the government against the ICS - a controversial dispute resolution mechanism that may allow Canadian companies to reverse government decisions if they believe the decisions undermine their investments.

If the government can give these guarantees, ChristenUnie may change its vote from "no" to "yes", giving CETA majority support in parliament.

SP parliamentarian Mahir Alkaya accused Voordewind of using empty words to hide that the ChristenUnie has turned coat. "The text of the treaty is fixed," Alkaya said - there's no more room to adjust the agreement. "The fact is that the treaty contains things that the ChristenUnie has always said they will never agree to."

Where the ChristenUnie seems to be turning from "no" to "yes", opposition party PvdA is going the other way. According to PvdA leader Lodewijk Asscher, his party is withdrawing support because fair labor, environmental protection, and animal welfare are not properly arranged by the treaty. This is remarkable because PvdA MP Lilianne Ploumen was a fierce advocate for the treaty when she was the Foreign Trade Minister in the previous cabinet. It was Ploumen who negotiated the treaty on behalf of the Netherlands. 

Because of this, the PvdA faced a storm of criticism from coalition parties VVD, CDA and D66 on Wednesday. D66 leader Rob Jetten reminded the labor party of the words of praise that Asscher, Ploumen and also Frans Timmermans had for the treaty until recently. "Former Minister Ploumen signed this treaty in 2016. She called CETA 'the best trade agreement we ever had'. Why then 'yes' and now 'no'?" Jetten wanted to know. "If the EU cannot even conclude a trade agreement with an ally like Canada, what signal does that send?"

According to the D66 leader, it is crucial for the EU to be able to conclude trade agreements in times when China and Russia are increasingly taking hold on the world stage and when isolationist politicians like United Stats president Donald Trump seem to consider trade wars more important than trade agreements.

The VVD could not manage to hide its irritation with its former coalition partner. "This is not a tea party. Do you not see the greater importance?" MP Arne Weverling wanted to know. He called it "bizarre and cowardly" that Ploumen and Asscher did not attend the debate.

The other opposition parties are all still vehemently against CETA. Left-wing parties GroenLinks, SP, and PvdD see the free trade agreement as a license for multinationals to take over. CETA subordinates democratic rule of law, food safety standards, and animal welfare to the interests of business, they argue.

According to right-wing nationalist PVV , the agreement is a "wrecking ball for Dutch farmers", because they must adhere to strict rules that do not apply to Canadian farmers. Thierry Baudet, leader of the other far-right populist party FvD, called CETA unnecessary because trade with Canada is already "going well". Moreover the dispute settlement mechanism ICS will limit the sovereignty of the Netherlands, he said. 

D66 leader Jetten asked the FvD why it voted for a trade agreement with Vietnam, of which ICS is also a part, in the European Parliament on Wednesday. Baudet called this an "administrative error".

Baudet asked for 240 minutes of speaking time during the debate on Wednesday, promising to fill that time "completely substantively". He started his time by speaking about the history of the CETA agreement, but ran out of things to say 90 minutes in, according to RTL Nieuws.