STRASBOURG, France, Feb 15 – The European Parliament was expected to approve a contested EU-Canada free trade deal on Wednesday despite rising anti-globalisation anger in Europe and the protectionist influence of the US Trump administration.
If MEPs back the pact, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is expected to address the parliament in Strasbourg, France on Thursday.
The EU and Canada formally signed the deal in October after seven years of tough talks, overcoming last-minute resistance from a small Belgian region that blocked its national government from approving the accord.
EU leaders hope for a symbolic show of support from the parliament for an imperilled global trade system that also faces a threat from Trump who is seeking to end big international trade deals.
Dozens of protestors lay down in front of the parliament building in the eastern French city of Strasbourg, temporarily blocking entrance for hundreds of MEPs and officials ahead of the midday (1100 GMT) vote.
Opponents to the accord, which is known as CETA, had delivered a petition to parliament with three and a half million signatures, slamming the deal as a danger to health, democracy and the rule of law.
Despite the pushback, the deal is widely expected to pass, with votes by conservatives, liberals and a divided socialist bloc seen as enough to get it through.
“CETA is the best trade agreement the EU has ever concluded. It will bring Canada and Europe even closer together,” said German MEP Manfred Weber, the head of the conservative EPP group, the parliament’s biggest bloc.
Approval by MEPs will allow the provisional implementation of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) as early as March.
Deal ‘attacks governments’
Some of the more controversial aspects, including a much-derided investor court system, will require ratification by EU member states, which could take years.
The EU is very ambitious about the deal, calling it Europe’s most modern ever, and saying it will become a template for later deals, including with post-Brexit Britain.
CETA will remove 99 percent of customs duties between the two sides, a big win for European exporters.
And unlike classic trade deals, CETA also attempts to harmonise regulations on matters such as health and the environment.
A flashpoint for opponents is the proposal to set up special courts to settle disputes between investors and national authorities that is central to the deal.
Opponents believe this provision hands too much power to multinationals that will use powerful lawyers to undermine national regulation.
“Multinationals will be able to attack governments in a privatised court system,” said France’s far-right presidential candidate and MEP Marine Le Pen, who will vote against CETA.
But the deal’s EU negotiator, Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem, told MEPs that “nothing in this agreement undermines a government’s right to regulate in the public interest.”
The vote comes at a particularly sensitive time for global trade matters, with Britain poised to leave the European Union and new US president Trump rejecting an Asia-Pacific trade deal.
Trump is also widely expected to drop a similar proposed deal with the EU known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership or TTIP.
Trudeau met with Trump on Monday in Washington.
Trump had vowed to put “America first” and rip up the North America Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico, but significantly toned down that rhetoric after meeting Trudeau.