The Pacific Islands Economic Partnership Agreement is now in the hands of French MEP André Rougé, a member of France’s far right Rassemblement National and the European Parliament’s Identity and Democracy group that includes far right parties from eight other European countries. A file that would have sailed quietly through parliament in the past now requiring greater mobilisation from mainstream parties.
The Solomon Island accession to the 2011 trade pact is politically and economically a relatively minor file for the EU. However it is existential for the Solomon Islands, a country of close to 600 000 inhabitants benefiting from generous duty-free-quota-free EU trade preferences that will soon run out as it graduates from least-developed-countrys status in the United Nations.
This file could be a test case on how the politics of trade reports and legislation in the European parliament evolves as ‘populist’ parties occupy greater space in Strasbourg and Brussels following European elections last May.
Break with consensual rapporteur tradition
As befits a national-populist party these days, the DI breaks with tradition. So far rapporteurs in the European Parliament conceived of themselves as bridge and consensus builders and tended to produce reports and policy recommendations that tried to reflect the broad balance of views among different parties. If the rapporteur himself or herself did not agree with the mainstream position, he or she would table specific amendments to a report and subject it to votes in committee or plenary the same way as any other party member.
Rougé did not take that approach. His initial report simply stated his party’s and political groups’ views that the Solomon Islands should not accede to a regional trade agreement to which fellow Pacific Islanders Fiji, Samoa and Papua New Guinea are already parties. The reasons stated are that the deal would encourage palm oil imports into the EU, foster greater Chinese involvement in the fish processing industry, stimulate overfishing in the Salomon Islands and bring more competition for fish canning industries in France’s own neighbouring Pacific possessions.
The response from the three largest ‘mainstream’ parties was clear: they would table amendments aimed at reverting Rougé’s recommendation. More generally, a common ‘front’ appeared to have emerged in the international trade committee session dedicated to the Salomon Island’s accession file.
The country’s own trade minister flew in all the way to attend the meeting, explaining how vital the deal would be to help the country diversify its economy and partnerships and fulfill the United Nation’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.
MEP Christophe Hansen from the centre-right EPP grup said the agreement “will reinforce EU presence in the region”. Hansen added: “We cannot share the argumentation proposed by the rapporteur. We will propose an amendment to reverse the recommendation of the rapporteur.” The centre-left S&D group and centrist Renew Group made similar statements.
There was no statement from the Greens group, however, which so far has tended to vote against EU trade agreements.
The international trade committee vote on the Solomon Islands’s accession to the EPA will take place on 3 November 2019.