Ethics, aesthetics or science?

A seal (source nutmeg66 / Flickr)

The European Union has a ban on the import of seal skins and other seal products from Canada. The ban has been supported by the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers, which is why it has become a law. The Canadian government, unsurprisingly, disapproves. But what can it do?

Canada is not a member of the European Union and so, while it can lobby furiously in Brussels and in the national capitals, it has no vote. (UKIP, please note.) Its resort is to the World Trade Organisation, which has a dispute settlement system of its own. (UKIP, please note that, too.) The Canadians argue that the EU ban is in breach of WTO rules because it is not based on science.

But since when do political decisions have to be based on science? What does it do to democratic decision-making when a court can sit in judgement of the motives of the decision-makers? Why can’t decisions be based on ethics, or aesthetics, or even superstition instead? If democracy turns the opinions of the voters into law, who dares tell the voters what their opinions may be?

The reason is the commitments that WTO members have made to each other. The aim of the WTO is to make it easier for companies within its member countries to trade with each other by limiting the ways in which governments can interfere with or restrict that trade. This includes measures that are explicitly intended to be trade-limiting, such as tariffs and quotas, and also measures that have this effect while ostensibly being enacted for other purposes. American protests about the EU’s ban on the import of beef containing certain artificial hormones were based on this second complaint.

It is accepted that there are circumstances when free trade might not be the overriding objective. The protection of public health, for example, can be given a higher priority, even if trade is reduced as a result. But it is easy to see how this can lead to cases where protectionism is introduced masquerading as a legitimate concern for public health. The WTO’s dispute settlement system is intended to distinguish between the two.

The consequence of WTO membership, therefore, is to limit the freedom of individual countries to make their own trade rules in the wider interest of a prosperous global economy. It is funny how free market opponents of the EU, objecting to the way it makes rules for the management of international trade, do not make the same objections about the WTO (as they logically should).

Federalists, on the other hand, see the connection. Our concern that the EU should act in a democratic and transparent manner applies to the WTO too. The seal case is a good example.

The EU ban on importing seal skins has been adopted as a result of democratic votes and accountable decision-making. If that ban is to be overturned by an international body, that body itself needs to be seen to be democratic and accountable too. (Strictly speaking, the WTO would be acting in a judicial role and not a political one in judging on this dispute, but even courts need to be embedded in a democratic and accountable framework.)

There are good reasons for doubting that the WTO is yet legitimate enough to justify the most far-reaching decisions that it is in theory capable of taking. The case for democratic reform of the global institutions remains strong.

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