Prime Minister of the Netherlands Mark Rutte takes part in a panel discussion at the Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany, Friday, Feb. 15, 2020. (Tobias Hase/dpa via AP)

In tight vote, Dutch lawmakers approve EU-Canada trade deal

February 18, 2020 - 10:19 am

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — In a tight vote Tuesday, lawmakers in the lower house of Dutch parliament approved a free trade deal between the European Union and Canada.

Dutch Overseas Trade Minister Sigrid Kaag, who was in parliament to watch the vote, smiled after 72 lawmakers voted for the deal and 69 against.

Defeat would have been a serious blow for the liberal Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who is a strong supporter of the deal and of free trade in this nation whose economy has for centuries been buoyed by exports.

But Tuesday's victory could be short lived. The Dutch Senate still must approve the pact and Rutte's coalition does not have a majority. The Senate is expected to debate the measure next month.

Rejection by the Netherlands would throw into doubt the future of the pact, formally called the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, or CETA. Most of the deal has been provisionally in force since 2017, but it must be ratified by all EU parliaments before fully entering into effect.

The deal eliminates almost all customs duties and increases quotas for certain key products in each other’s market. The EU said it will save its companies some 600 million euros a year in duties.

Implementing the full deal is also important for the EU as it tries to strike trade deals with other global partners and amid broader tensions in trade, particularly with the U.S. and Britain in the aftermath of Brexit.

Deeply skeptical Dutch lawmakers debated legislation enabling the treaty over two tense days last week.

During last week's debate, Kaag urged parliament to support the pact “in times of geopolitical turbulence and great uncertainty.”

She said the deal “is also about values and shared values and how we see the future of our country: Open to the world, strongly embedded in the European Union, our European home.”

Supporters also point to a long history of strong relations between the Netherlands and Canada and even to the role of Canadian forces in the liberation of the Netherlands from Nazi occupation at the end of World War II.

But opposition lawmakers expressed fear that it will erode food safety standards and expose Dutch farmers to unfair competition because their Canadian counterparts have lower animal welfare standards and lower costs.

Freek Bersch of Dutch environmental group Milieudefensie said lawmakers “missed a unique opportunity to vote down the CETA and by doing so demonstrate climate leadership.”

Lawmakers also expressed fears that a dispute mechanism built into the pact could undermine national sovereignty and expose the government to claims from multinationals - a view the government rejects.

“Unbelievable,” the socialist opposition party, SP, tweeted. “If you can choose for less power for multinationals, you do it, don't you?”

Rutte had looked to have a comfortable majority when the deal was negotiated, but since then Dutch elections have realigned the makeup of his coalition. The Labour Party that helped negotiate the deal while in the ruling coalition is now in opposition and has withdrawn its support.

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