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Canada flirts with WTO but committed to CETA during trade minister’s trip to Europe

Canada’s trade minister is in Europe again. He’ll spend some time at the WTO Ministerial starting December 15, but it’s clear from government communiques where Ed Fast’s heart lies. It’s not with the Doha Round of multilateral trade talks.

Fresh from trying to destroying global climate talks, the Harper government has joined rich countries in abandoning any development objectives at the WTO. According to CTV, Canada will join like-minded countries in issuing a “strongly-worded pledge regarding protectionism,” which is code for blaming poorer countries for low growth in the Global North. The blame game helps divert attention from U.S. (and Canadian) abandonment of the WTO in favour of bilateral and regional preferential trade agreements. It also distracts from the apparent inability of 30 years of trade liberalization to create a stable, prosperous, fair and equitable global economic order.

No, Fast’s heart is not with the WTO. It’s with CETA, the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with the EU — a WTO-plus package whose benefits are so obvious that it needs to be constantly marketed to Canadian and EU business groups lest they forget about it entirely.

Fast was in Vancouver last month to ask the Canada-Italy Chamber of Commerce to, “Please help us fight fear mongering with the facts, and ensure that people across our country understand the importance of creating a more competitive Canadian economy through freer trade.

“I am asking you to carry that message forward to your counterparts in Italy and in the European Union,” he said. “Let’s not let distractions get in the way of our closing an ambitious trade agreement.”

Distractions could mean the ongoing crisis in the Eurozone, or the rising volume of anti-CETA voices in Canada, or it could even mean the WTO negotiations themselves based on Fast’s schedule this week.

A press statement last week said now Fast is going to Europe not so much for the WTO meeting but (breath in), “as part of a pro-trade visit … to meet with EU officials and business leaders to promote the two-way benefits of a Canada-EU trade agreement that will create more jobs and prosperity on both sides of the Atlantic.” (Breath out.)

One of the goals of CETA is to shine a light on the virtues of moving even further down the path of free-market globalization, to set an example for the world to follow. The EU Commission hopes the U.S. will follow Canada’s lead into a North Atlantic free trade zone they could then try to lure other countries into on their own terms. The U.S. is trying to do the same in the pacific with the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

For rich countries this means no more pesky requests for Special and Differentiated Treatment for developing countries like at the WTO or UNFCCC. No more struggling with the contradictions of open markets with low growth, high profits with increased inequality, more trade liberalization with more ecological damage, etc.

It means Ed Fast continuing to say generally unhelpful things like, “Protectionism is poisonous in these tough economic times … it undermines the recovery of the world economy,” while other countries do generally helpful things for domestic producers. China seeks intellectual property transfer on foreign investment, for example, and puts more into renewable energy than most other countries combined. Brazil and Argentina are working together to increase the domestic content of regional auto production, much like Canada and the U.S. did before NAFTA.

Canada is also obstructionist at the WTO on the issue of financial re-regulation. According to an excellent article on the status of WTO negotiations by Deborah James, director of international programs of the Washington, DC-based Center for Economic and Policy Research:

some countries have realized the danger of further financial sector liberalization, and are seeking to assess whether the WTO shouldn’t take up the global call for increased public oversight of financial markets instead. Ecuador, supported strongly by India, Argentina, Barbados, Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, South Africa, Turkey, and many civil society groups, put forth a proposal for the WTO to merely review “the WTO rules so as to promote and ensure the preservation of policy space for macro-prudential regulations and the integrity and stability of the financial system.” But this modest language was nonetheless opposed by the U.S. and the E.U., along with Australia, South Korea, Canada, Taiwan, and Norway, and thus is unlikely to be reflected in any Ministerial outcomes.

Meanwhile, Canada has joined the U.S. and EU in pushing for so-called “new issues” to be addressed at the WTO as a way to make it more relevant (to them, not developing or least developed countries). James writes that these issues includes:

“environmental goods and services (EGS)” under the rubric of tackling the issue of “climate and trade.” Unfortunately, rather than focusing on removing WTO barriers to reducing climate change (such as excessive patent monopolies on green technologies), negotiating EGS has simply become another method through which major exporters can claim to be addressing climate change while actually just increasing trade, itself major cause of climate change.

The differences of opinions between countries like Canada, the U.S., Australia, EU on one side and Brazil, China, India, Argentina, South America and others on the other has deadlocked the WTO negotiations for a decade. There will be no breakthrough this week. Canada is literally running away from multilateral dialogue to promote a limited, pro-corporate bilateral deal with the EU.

The Our World is Not For Sale network, to which the Council of Canadians is a member, will be in Geneva this week to promote a transformation of the WTO, “from an institution focused on codifying corporate ‘rights’ to profit from trade, deregulation, and patent/copyright monopolies, to a rules-based system that disciplines corporate activity, in which countries would have the right and the ability to harness the benefits of trade for their own sustainable development,” in James’ words.

For groups like the Council of Canadians who have been fighting the WTO for over a decade, it feels odd to be now calling for reforms instead of the death of Doha. But it’s because the alternatives–CETA, the TPP, etc–are so much worse, not just for Canadian jobs and policy space, which will suffer, but for the idea of global cooperation on economic, environmental and food security.