September 21, 2016
Will Austria veto Ceta?
Maybe Canada's trade minister Chrystia Freeland should have paid a visit to Austria, not Germany, because this is where the Canada-EU trade agreement is now in acute trouble. Austria's SPÖ, the senior partner in the grand coalition government led by chancellor Christian Kern, asked its members what they wanted about Ceta, the EU's trade deal with Canada. The predictable answer they got was a 'No'. In fact, 92% of the votes were negative. Communist leaders would have been proud to receive such results. Since Austria has a veto in the ratification process, such a strong party mandate can hardly be ignored. The government cannot wiggle out of this dilemma by allowing itself to be outvoted in the council.
On Monday, the German SPD's party congress voted in favour of Ceta after Freeland gave a passionate speech in favour of the deal, and even managed to get portrayed, wrongly, in the German press as a former anti-globalisation activist. FAZ makes the point that the difference in outcomes between Austria and Germany has been the position taken by the party leader. Gabriel campaigned strongly in favour of Ceta, while Kern campaigned against. There is an issue whether the Austrian referendum is representative. Only 14.400 people turned out for the vote, including 9.300 non-members. That leaves a single-digit percentage of SPÖ party members. However, polls suggest that Ceta and TTIP are highly unpopular among the electorate, so this result may be representative.
FAZ notes that there may be ways to circumvent the national veto through a de facto backdoor implementation, whilst awaiting ratification. But the paper writes that there are currently no indications that they EU will go this way. The only qualification made by Austria's government, which would allow them to accept a backdoor ratification, would be an acceptance in principle of additional declarations and improvements, notably on the question of investor tribunals, social and environmental standards, and a host of other areas. The paper writes the European Commission interpreted this position as a movement towards the position of the SPD, which also has made a number of requests - but crucially none of them require opening up the treaty itself, only the insertion of protocols.
EU trade ministers are going to meet in Bratislava (of all places) this Friday where they might take a decision on how to proceed. The all-important question is now how Chancellor Kern will play this.
Andreas Schnauder writes in a comment in Der Standard that Kern is playing a dangerous game. Perhaps the EU can manage to negotiate some special exemptions for Austria, which will allow him to sign the treaty with a straight face. More probable, however, is that he has manoeuvred himself into a dead end from which he will not be able to get out of - meaning he will veto Ceta, and risk a full-blown government crisis in Austria and a larger EU crisis.