Europe's Free-Trade Advocates Need to Speak Up

Who shouts loudest wins.

Photographer: Emmanuele Contini/NurPhoto via Getty Images

It's entirely unsurprising -- expected, really -- for the anti-global European left to oppose a trade deal with America. But with Canada?

The Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, painstakingly negotiated over seven years, would cut trade barriers between Europe and the world's 10th-largest economy. Unlike the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the European Union and the U.S. (which is all but dead), CETA has been signed and ready to go for some time. Thankfully, Europe's politicians have finally begun the process of approving it. But their reluctance bodes ill for the TTIP and, more generally, the prospects for free trade in Europe.

QuickTake Free Trade Feud

Opposition to CETA has mounted in recent weeks, with hundreds of thousands protesting in Germany and Europe's anti-globalization activists calling the Canadian deal TTIP's "ugly brother." Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern, a fierce TTIP opponent, threatened to withhold support, as have members of parliament in Belgium and the Netherlands. At least Germany's Social Democratic Party, which opposes TTIP, now supports CETA.

The main objections to CETA are similar to those against TTIP: that lower barriers to trade mean lower product standards, and that it would undermine national sovereignty by granting multinational conglomerates new legal rights to challenge regulations of health, labor, food safety and the like. Even granting that concerns over sovereignty are real -- if overstated -- they pale in comparison to the benefits of free trade in promoting national prosperity.

Meeting in Bratislava, Slovakia, last week, European trade ministers managed to get closer to agreement. Their goal is now to get CETA signed when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visits Brussels on Oct. 27. One likelihood is that they will bring the pact into force on a provisional basis while it winds its way through all 38 of the EU's national and regional parliaments.

That's a good sign, but the fight is not over. CETA still faces a challenge in Germany's constitutional court, with a ruling expected in October. And opponents will fight ratification by EU parliaments. It's also worth noting that the price for support of CETA seems to have been surrender on TTIP. One minister even suggested starting over by renaming that deal.

Europe's leaders have to mount a more serious defense than that. Free trade is not without its victims, and governments need to do more to help workers hurt by it. That's not an argument, though, for opposing any particular deal or the concept in general. Free trade deserves a bolder defense than Europe's leaders are giving it.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.