21st Mar 2018

Belgian town 'opts out' of EU-US trade treaty

  • Every Monday, St. Gilles' Van Meenen square has a market - will it be excluded from the US-EU free-trade area? (Photo: Jean-Paul Remy)

St. Gilles is a village-like municipality in the Brussels region, where some of the Art Nouveau-style houses are occupied by trendy bars and pop-up stores.

It occupies 2.5 square kilometres of the European Union's 4.4 million square kilometres, and houses just under 50,000 people – around 0.0098 percent of the EU population.

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But despite its small size, its city council recently adopted a resolution with which it hopes to influence negotiations between the European Commission and the United States on a free-trade treaty, which some know by its acronym - TTIP.

On Monday (13 July), the commission will hold the 10th round of talks, a stone's throw away from St. Gilles’ city hall.

If agreed, TTIP will apply to the entire EU.

On 25 June, the St. Gilles council adopted a text which criticized a key component of the pact, a mechanism which allows private firms to sue national governments to protect their commercial interests, also known by an acronym - ISDS.

St. Gilles also declared itself a “zone outside of TTIP”.

To make sure the people who live there are aware of the motion's defiant content, it sent out a press release titled “St. Gilles - Zone outside the TTIP market!”.

Legally impossible

So will St. Gilles erect a fence around its territory? Will it reinstate the fortified Halle Gate, the only remaining gate of the city wall which once separated the town from Brussels-proper?

No, said the defenders of the motion.

“Of course, it is legally impossible”, to exclude St. Gilles from a future EU-US free-trade area, said Alain Maron, a member of the council for the Green party, Ecolo.

“It’s a symbolic motion”, he said, adding he is fully aware that a municipality cannot opt-out of treaties which are legally binding on the entire country.

“They don’t have the authority. A treaty trumps lower legislation”, added Cedric Van Assche, of the Centre for International Law at the Free University of Brussels. “The motion is a political signal”.

Only if negotiators put a special provision in the treaty which allows cities or regions to opt out, could St. Gilles really be a “non-TTIP zone” - an unlikely development, to put it mildly.

The motion was adopted by a majority, but the French-speaking, liberal party MR abstained.

“We agree that it would be better to temporarily stop the TTIP negotiations”, said Rodolphe d'Udekem d'Acoz of MR.

But declaring the commune to be outside of TTIP “is a little bit ridiculous. It doesn't mean anything”, he added.

He agreed with people who say the municipality shouldn’t waste time on Quixotic initiatives.

“I saw people reacting on Facebook saying: ‘Please guys, take care of local problems instead of making a big buzz’.”

But St. Gilles is not alone in its protest, said Maron.

“If this kind of motion was voted in only one municipality, it would be strange”, he noted.

But he pointed out that some 50 Belgian municipalities have adopted similar texts.

“The possible negative impact of the treaty will also impact on a local level”, Maron said.

His socialist council colleague, Christophe Soil, told this website in an e-mail that his party worries mostly about the investor court.

“Our fear … is that any government intervention could be challenged in the name of the impact it could potentially have on market access and profitability of companies”, he said.

European Parliament vote

Many MEPs, who do wield legal power on TTIP, share his concern.

When the plenary session of the European Parliament votes on the commission's negotiating mandate on Wednesday (8 July), it is precisely the ISDS issue which could be the sticking point.

Over 2 million EU citizens have also signed a petition asking for an end to negotiations.

One might wonder why opposition to TTIP is so fierce, when its contents have not yet been finalized.

“With this kind of treaty, when it is signed, it is too late”, said Maron, criticizing the lack of transparency in the talks. “The way the negotiations are led oblige people to take a position”.

Meanwhile, St. Gilles’ motion could come back to haunt the trade pact.

It still remains to be seen which sectors the treaty will cover. If it covers sectors on which the EU's national governments have not ceded sovereignty to Brussels, the treaty will be a so-called mixed agreement.

In that case, not only the European Parliament, but also national parliaments will have a say.

In the Belgian federation’s political system, that means the local parliament of the Brussels-Capital Region will also have a say. A parliament of which Maron is a member.

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