It appears Belgium’s Wallonia has put a nail in the coffin of the EU-Canada trade agreement (CETA) by vetoing it. The reasons, The Economist puts it, “are hard to understand.”
Well, yes and no. Canada is one of the most progressive trade partners you could hope to have, and it is hard to believe that Walloon incomes or values are really being threatened. But clearly something larger than the specifics of this agreement is at stake here.
Instead of decrying people’s stupidity and ignorance in rejecting trade deals, we should try to understand why such deals lost legitimacy in the first place. I’d put a large part of the blame on mainstream elites and trade technocrats who pooh-poohed ordinary people’s concerns with earlier trade agreements.
The elites minimized distributional concerns, though they turned out to be significant for the most directly affected communities. They oversold aggregate gains from trade deals, though they have been smallish since at least NAFTA. They said sovereignty would not be diminished though it clearly was in some instances. They claimed democratic principles would not be undermined, though they are in places. They said there’d be no social dumping though there clearly is at times. They advertised trade deals (and continue to do so) as “free trade” agreements, even though Adam Smith and David Ricardo would turn over in their graves if they read, say, any of the TPP chapters.
And because they failed to provide those distinctions and caveats, now trade gets tarred with all kinds of ills even when it’s not deserved. If the demagogues and nativists making nonsensical claims about trade are getting a hearing, it is trade’s cheerleaders that deserve some of the blame.
One more thing. The opposition to trade deals is no longer solely about income losses. The standard remedy of compensation won’t be enough — even if carried out. It’s about fairness, loss of control, and elites’ loss of credibility. It hurts the cause of trade to pretend otherwise.
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Dani Rodrik, professor of international political economy at Harvard University’s John F Kennedy School of Government, is president of the International Economic Association and author of Straight Talk on Trade: Ideas for a Sane World Economy (Princeton University Press).