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Opinion The direct democratic struggle about free trade

Demonstrations are planned in Germany's capital Berlin against major international trade agreements 


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By Bruno Kaufmann

How to reconcile people power with trade politics? This question is about to be answered by modern direct democracy – at the transnational level, says Bruno Kaufmann, editor-in chief of People2Power.

A total of 3,263,920 signatures from 28 European Union member states. This impressive pile of statements of support from EU citizens was delivered to the European Commission on October 7.

Their demand is two-fold: A hold on the so-called Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with Canada, and, an immediate stop to the negotiations between the EU and the United States on a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

In both cases the sponsors and most supporters of the initiativeexternal link see these free trade agreements (FTAs) as “a threat to democracy, the environment, consumers and labour standards”.

Bruno Kaufmann is’s global democracy correspondent and editor-in-chief of the democracy media platform,


Such accords across national borders have always triggered opposition and debate, in part because international trade politics and democracy are hard to reconcile.

Free trade is about creating an economic environment across national borders and continents that primarily offers benefits and protection to powerful investors and big companies, whereas the aim of modern democracy is to protect citizens and enable even the smallest communities to make their voices heard.

The secretive free trade agreements illustrate the huge gap between these two worlds. A global economy that has few constraints and boundaries, and people power that is still very much limited.

Swiss pioneers

It was in Switzerland that the first nationwide public vote on an international trade agreement took place. On December 3, 1972, almost 75% of Swiss voters approved the trade agreementexternal link between Switzerland and the European Economic Community (EEC, the predecessor of today’s EU).

This vote was remarkable in several ways.

It was one of the first nationwide votes after the introduction of full universal suffrage in Switzerland (which until 1970 had excluded women from the ballot box!).

The vote was neither based on a referendum forced by citizens nor required by the Swiss constitution. But it was presented to the voters by the government.

And the complexity of the proposed agreement (including 1500+ pages) led the authorities to develop – for the first time – a voters’ pamphlet.

Known today as the “booklet” (and used by most Swiss as a primary source of information), this innovative pamphlet has become a model for good referendum practice across the globe.

Other European ballots

This first free trade ballot at the time coincided with other citizen decisions across Europe – in France, Ireland, Norway and Denmark – on EEC-related issues like expansion and admission.

Opinion series publishes op-ed articles by contributors writing on a wide range of topics – Swiss issues or those that impact Switzerland. The selection of articles presents a diversity of opinions designed to enrich the debate on the issues discussed.

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Since then, the European integration process, which has always had a lot to do with free trade, has become one of the most voted on issues in the history of modern direct democracy, featuring more than 60 nationwide votes in 28 countries in nearly half a century.

The debate about balancing international economic freedoms with nation-based democratic rights and practices has not been limited to Europe.

Wherever a certain amount of democratisation has occurred within countries, the willingness of their governments to negotiate and implement far-reaching free trade agreements has come under extensive scrutiny – as it was the case with the first FTAexternal link by the US in Asia, when millions of Koreans signed petitions against it, followed by large street protests.

However, due to the highly polarised two-party system of South Korea, the rightwing government was finally able to bypass the strong opposition and strike the deal with Washington in 2011.

Costa Rica vote

Similarly, democracy advocates and trade unions across the Americas opposed the series of FTAs across the two continents since the in the 1990s.

It was up to the most developed democracy in the region, Costa Rica, to introduce the practice of a direct democratic check on an FTA in 2007.

Negotiations for the creation of a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) date back to the early 1990s.

The creation of such an area – extending from Alaska in the north to Tierra del Fuego in the south – was stalled by strong opposition in many countries.

Sub-regional agreements included the central American states of Nicaragua, Guatemala and Honduras, the Dominican Republic – and Costa Rica.

Here a new constitution established as late as 2002 offered citizens the possibility to launch their own initiative against CAFTA (the Central American Free Trade Agreement).

By November 2006, more than 132,000 citizens – that is slightly more than 5% of the electorate – had signed an initiative, leading to the very first nationwide public voteexternal link on a substantive issue in Costa Rica on October 7, 2007.

While 51.5% approved CAFTA, 48.5% voted against. With a turnout rate of almost 60% this decision became binding, as the constitution requires at least 40% of the electorate to take part in order to validate a citizen decision at the ballot box.

Democratic scrutiny is said to have improved the trade agreements, and their implementation, in Switzerland and Costa Rica. Trade clearly boosted the development of direct democracy and the transparency and responsiveness it brings with it.

Now the trade agreements and direct democracy are being tested for the first time at a transnational level.

Self-organised citizens’ initiative

The tool at hand to do that is the European Citizens’ Initiativeexternal link (ECI). This instrument was introduced only in 2012 with the latest constitutional reforms of the EU.

The ECI allows at least one million EU citizens (with a requirement to have a certain number of supporters from at least seven member states) to propose new EU legislation – on equal footing with other legislative bodies like the EU parliament („Congress“) and the EU Council („Senate“).

It is the very first such participatory tool at the transnational level worldwide – with the signatures to be gathered electronically.

However, the first three years with the ECI have been a true roller-coaster ride for campaigners of more transnational people power.

The procedure includes cumbersome verification and certification procedures involving authorities from 28 member states.

In addition, the EU Commission (which is the main executive branch of government at the EU level) has been reluctant to admit and register initiatives, which are not under their full competence to legislate – as it was the case in the TTIP-ECI.

The commission, as in about one third of all filed initiatives, simply refusedexternal link to register. As a result, more people have supported the (self-organised) ECI, than any other initiative so far.

After all, ECIs have limited binding powers on the institutions, but rather strong communicative potential.

Planned protests

The Stop-TTIP campaign, which will organise public gatherings across Europe on October 10, has boosted efforts of revising the ECI itself.  Major reforms are currently being discussed in the European parliament and promoted by NGOs like Democracy Internationalexternal link.

It is also drawing much wider public attention to the TTIP-negotiations, making this treaty – at least in its original format – less likely to succeed by the day.

The consequences of this growing public interest in FTAs can even be felt in the ongoing ratification process about the newly agreed Trans-Pacific Partnershipexternal link agreement, including the US and 12 Pacific rim countries, and covering about 40% of the world economy.

By self-organising a highly successful ECI – reaching threshold numbers in basically all the EU member states – the campaign has also encouraged democracy activists in many countries to use their own participatory tools to make their voices heard – including new citizens initiatives about the agreement under way both in Italy and the Netherlands.

Regardless of what one thinks, feels and understands about FTAs, there seems to be only one main way of reconciling them with people power in the in the long run  – by practising modern direct democracy at the transnational level.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of This is a slightly adapted version of the original text which was published in cooperation with Zocalo Public Squareexternal link.

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