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Vienna (PC) - The predominant topic in the EU subcommittee of the National Council was the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with Canada (CETA). The negotiations in this regard, which began in May 2009, were concluded in October of the previous year; on August 5, 2014, the EU Commission presented the provisional agreement texts to the member states.

Vice Chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner confirmed to the MPs that the treaty was a mixed agreement that would also be ratified in the individual national parliaments. That is the opinion of all Member States. If the Commission sees this differently, there will be no approval in the Council. However, he was confident that the new Commissioner responsible, Cecilia Malmström, would share the view of the EU countries.

CETA is the first comprehensive free trade agreement between the EU and an industrialized state that also includes investment protection including an investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS). Like the TTIP agreement currently being negotiated between the EU and the USA, CETA is controversial, especially because of ISDS.

Mitterlehner: Understanding of concerns about investment protection

Even in the committee, which was followed today by numerous interested citizens, the discussion focused primarily on this topic. It is not understandable to provide special rights of action in a treaty between rule-of-law highly developed countries, it said. Since investment protection was originally neither an issue of Canada nor the EU and was only included in the negotiations later, many MPs suspected that the relevant provisions should serve as a prejudice for the TTIP negotiations.

The Vice Chancellor and Minister of Economic Affairs showed understanding for the concerns expressed, but at the same time pointed out that both CETA and TTIP have what is known as the "right to regulate", which ensures that a country cannot be sued if it does retrospectively changes laws. It has also been ensured that American corporations cannot complain through the back door in Canada. Nevertheless, one must check whether and to what extent one actually needs investment protection if the "right to regulate" is part of the agreement anyway, said Mitterlehner. The government would look closely and then find a common position, he affirmed. In addition, the EU Commission has also been sensitized and has initiated the consultation mechanism in the TTIP negotiations on this issue, which has not yet been concluded. One should therefore wait for the result. "We are not running away from it," said Mitterlehner.

Apart from this point, the Vice Chancellor endorsed the agreement and said that it represented a great opportunity for both parties. Due to Austria's considerable foreign trade with Canada, significant economic advantages could be expected for Austria. In 2013 Austrian exports totaled € 918 million and Austrian imports € 457 million. Austria has always benefited from the free trade agreements so far, he emphasized.

Cornerstones of the agreement with Canada

Specifically, the agreement provides for the abolition of most tariffs, there are exceptions for some agricultural products, and market access quotas have been agreed for Canada for sensitive agricultural products. According to information from the economic department, public services are comprehensively secured, as is the promotion of cultural diversity. In addition, the agreement guarantees a broad exception for the water supply and the generation of nuclear energy as well as practically with a few exceptions the continuation of the labor market test with regard to the movement of people, emphasized Mitterlehner in the committee. Furthermore, it is expected that the opening of the market will also open up new export opportunities in the energy and transport sectors.

There would be no lowering of social and environmental standards in favor of investments, assured Mitterlehner and pointed out the anchored "right to regulate" of the contractual partners. The protection of intellectual property and the protection of essential agrarian geographical designations of origin are also preserved.

The official conclusion of the negotiations is to be announced at the planned EU-Canada summit on September 26, 2014, but the contract will not be initialed at this date. After the examination of the entire text of the agreement by the EU member states and the legal examination have been completed, the texts are translated into the official EU languages ​​and then a formal proposal from the Commission to the Council for signature and approval. The European Parliament will then deal with the agreement. After all, all 28 EU member states have to ratify the treaty.

SPÖ: CETA offers opportunities, the dangers are considerable

Critical words came not only from the opposition but also from the coalition partner SPÖ. The finding is ambivalent, said Christine Muttonen (S), CETA offers many opportunities, but the dangers are considerable, especially when it comes to special rights of action. It is unclear whether investors will now receive more or fewer rights compared to the existing protection. It is also questionable what is encompassed by the term investment and what is meant by "fair and equitable treatment of investors". Muttonen would also have liked more commitments when it comes to sustainability. Mitterlehner responded that he also sees the need for re-sharpening and clarification of individual questions.

Christoph Matznetter (S) also questioned why developed constitutional states need a superordinate dispute settlement mechanism, and Hannes Weninger (S) pointed out the legitimate concerns of broad sections of the population.

FPÖ urges the rejection of the CETA agreement

The FPÖ considers the CETA agreement to be questionable in terms of the rule of law. In a motion for a statement, which was introduced by Barbara Rosenkranz and which did not receive sufficient support with the votes of the FPÖ and the Greens, the Freedom Party warned against undermining the democratic legal system if special rights of complaint should be granted. In this way, corporations could deter the EU states from new requirements for health or consumer protection simply by threatening legal action, they fear. This would have negative effects on consumer and nature protection, on food standards as well as on environmental and worker protection. Private profit interests would finally take precedence over the common good. Such investment protection was originally only intended for those investments that are made in a state with low constitutional standards, explained Barbara Rosenkranz the request and the demand contained therein that the Federal Government clearly rejects the CETA draft contract.

Greens: We do not need any special rights of action

Both CETA and TTIP will initiate a downward trend, Werner Kogler also stated from the perspective of the Greens. Since there is neither a completely true cost nor the same standards, there will inevitably be competitive disadvantages that would initiate such a negative development in environmental and social standards. Kogler also spoke out firmly against investment protection. "We don't need that," he said. There is also the question of why you need investment protection when you have the "right to regulate". Obviously, there is something else behind it, said Kogler, who also identified an inconsistent attitude within the government on this issue.

ÖVP: Agreement is a step in the right direction

For small and medium-sized companies, investment protection is an important issue, said Angelinka Winzig (V). It is important for Austria as an exporting country to switch to distant markets, and she thinks it would be good to develop closer economic relationships with a country that is democratic and based on the rule of law. Her club colleague Wolfgang Gerstl (V) argued similarly, who expects an increase in exports, more investment and job creation from the free trade agreement. The agreement is going in the right direction because it also includes the provision that it should not be possible to lower standards simply because of competition.

Team Stronach and NEOS: A lack of transparency fuels mistrust

The Stronach team and NEOS also consider such free trade agreements to be necessary for an export-oriented country. Rouven Ertlschweiger (T) and Rainer Hable (N) criticized the lack of transparency in the course of the negotiation process. Such a strategy of secrecy makes people suspicious and stirs up distrust, said Ertlschweiger. Parliament and the population must be involved much more closely, said Hable, who also urged that such agreements be used as an opportunity to set global standards.

The chairman of the committee and second president of the National Council, Karlheinz Kopf, reacted by pointing out that the EU subcommittee was the institution of parliament in order to be able to enter into dialogue with the responsible government members in good time. That also happened with TTIP and CETA. Vice Chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner emphasized that his department regularly and extensively involves parliament by making all documents available. As for the actions of the EU and the US, he shared the criticism of the MPs. The secrecy has accelerated the distrust. (End) jan