Published in the Vancouver Observer | March 14, 2012 | Circulation 150,000 unique monthly visitors
Canada’s international trade minister has boasted that his European free trade push is the “most ambitious plan of its kind in history” – yet the close-to-complete agreeement is still cloaked in secrecy.
The sprawling deal, The Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement [CETA], has also drawn fire because of provisions allowing corporations to sue municipal and provincial governments over lost profits resulting from “discriminatory” policies. For example, if a city wanted to hire a local only company for water services, it might face a challenge by competing multinationals. Europe, it turns out, is the home of the largest multinational water companies in the world.
“They haven’t explained to people what’s in it,” Stuart Trew, trade campaigner for the Council of Canadians, told the Vancouver Observer. “I think they don’t necessarily want to talk about CETA.
“It’s a lot easier to pass it and get it through Parliament quickly if no one’s talking about it. But transparency implies some capacity to actually affect the negotiations or the deal on table. That’s non-existent – as it has been in other trade deals.”
CETA emerged in the news earlier this week, when Canada’s High Commissioner to the UK – former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell – told CTV news that the deal is still on track for completion this year.
“The major issues are now, sort of, dealt with,” Campbell said in a televised interview. “They’ve got some very intense negotiations going on now.
“I think by the end of this year we’ll have an agreement ready for consideration.”
Campbell praised CETA, which he said will give Canadian firms access to the $17 trillion European market, and add thousands of trade-dependent jobs at home. He also dismissed the bill’s growing opposition.
“The people that are opposed to trade are opposed to it always,” Campbell said. “Opening trade up for Canada is a critical component of our economic health in the future.
“If you want to have the additional jobs, the additional increase in our economy – if you want to create opportunities in Canada – it comes from trade.”
Today, New Democrats on a federal trade committee joined the Liberals in demanding the government make public details about the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) – a deal which critics warn could lead towards the privatization of water services, restraints on the rights of municipalities and provinces, and higher drug costs.
“Closed-door meetings have created a climate of secrecy in the CETA process,” the NDP said in a statement. “Too little public information exists for Canadians and their elected representatives, at all levels of government, to reach informed conclusions on the merits and risks of CETA.”
The difficulty of reporting on CETA is that so little is known. Not only are the negotiations secret, but all that is known to the public is that the deal will be signed in 2012, and has finished its final round of negotiations. Half a dozen documents, including a 2010 draft, have been leaked from the talks, raising further spectres.
What is not in dispute is that the deal’s dispute process will enable European companies to take not only Canada – but also municipalities and provinces – to court if policies impinge on their profits in a “discriminatory” way. This, say critics, will restrict communities from enacting buy-local clauses for environmental reasons, and potentially put public water services at risk of privatization. Other opponents argue that CETA will endanger access to affordable, generic medication by imposing pro-business European standards on Canada – claims that DFAIT disputes.
Conservatives, meanwhile, are celebrating the agreement’s transparency, and point to meetings with industry representatives, unions, municipalities, provinces, and civil society updating them on the status of talks and requesting input.
“These have been the most transparent and collaborative trade negotiations Canada has ever conducted, with extensive consultations with all Canadians,” Rudy Rusny, press secretary for the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT), told the Vancouver Observer. “Negotiations are ongoing.
“Our government will only sign a trade agreement with the (European Union) if it is in Canada’s best interests. With one in five Canadian jobs dependent on trade, a trade agreement with the European Union has the potential to benefit Canada enormously.”
Criticism to the deal has coalesced from a coalition of trade unions,environmental organizations and social justice advocacy groups – but there have also been significant questions raised by municipalities and generic drug producers.
“We’ve seen a number of copies of the draft text,” said Stuart Trew, trade campaigner with the Council of Canadians. “Of course, when you don’t have information, you become more concerned – they haven’t explained to people what’s in it.
“There’s no evidence that these extreme investment protections encourage investment flows into Canada. Why would Canada – in an almost masochistic way – continue to negotiate a process which has put its own environmental and health policies at risk, while offering no benefits? It doesn’t make sense to us.”
In a speech last month, Conservative trade minister Ed Fast responded to journalists’ questions about the impact of CETA. Fast insisted the deal is in the country’s interests, and that negotiators in this home stretch have instructions to “defend Canadian interests.”
“What we’re looking for is an overall highly ambitious trade agreement between Canada and the EU,” Fast told reporters. “It will likely be the most ambitious agreement that either one of the two parties has ever entered into.”
But without public information – aside from the status of the negotiating rounds – the Canada-EU free trade deal hasn’t yet been widely publicized or discussed. While most international negotiations – whether on environmental, economic and security – would be conducted with some degree of secrecy, critics in the Opposition and civil society alike are demanding more information.
Some organizations, however, believe the government has no interest in discussing CETA openly, and has been relatively silent on the matter for good reason: more widespread public criticism could put pressure on negotiators to change or scrap the deal.
“Already, governments are not doing enough to deal with income inequality and climate change,” said trade lawyer Stephen Shrybman, with the firm Sack Goldblatt Mitchell LLP, who has authored a number of critical reports on the deal. “This entire regime is about reducing the ability of governments to do that.
“It’s a completely one-sided, lopsided deal in which we give and they take. People should be worried about it.”