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Canadian civil society groups briefed on 9th round of CETA talks

Last week, at the close of a ninth round of Canada-EU free trade talks in Ottawa, journalists listened to a press conference from International Trade Minister Ed Fast followed by a briefing from Canadian and EU trade negotiators. At the end of it all, the journalists were told not to repeat much of what they heard, according to one report in Embassy magazine. The briefing was for “deep background” only, a government spokesperson said.

“The information was for journalists’ own information, to enhance their knowledge of the issue and guide them to other sources who could confirm, on the record, what they’d been told,” reported Embassy. Apparently the media representatives protested but agreed to these ridiculous conditions since the coverage was not very specific.

As after other CETA rounds, NGO and academic types got their own briefing today, presumably before or after DFAIT’s other regular briefings with business groups. I was on the call along with some friendly voices from the Trade Justice Network. Below is as close to a verbatim account of what Canada’s lead negotiator told us. No one from the PMO or DFAIT warned us not to print it all and why would anyone listen to that advice anyway? But before that, a few things that stood out…

Water services: We were told “there is a strong sensitivity in the EU about water services and a reluctance on their part to put anything on the table.” Canada has some offensive issues when it comes to larger products related to water services, “but we’re not looking to see gains there.” However, “provision of water services where water has been privatized has come up,” we were told. The EU feels if a municipality had decided to privatize a local water service, that EU bidders should have equal rights under the procurement chapter to bid on the contracts. If that sounds fair enough, it’s important to note that current federal funding conditions for water infrastructure require municipalities to consider the private P3 model. This federal funding is important for cash-strapped cities and towns who need new infrastructure. There is a real risk that coverage of water service contracts by municipalities would force local governments to consider public and private bids equally, with winning bids based on cost factors only. For more information on this, see the report the Council of Canadians co-produced with CUPE.

Accountability: The Trade Justice Network and RQIC wrote to Minister Ed Fast in June requesting a meeting to formally raise our shared concerns about the CETA negotiations. On September 30, we received a response which said:

While I appreciated your request, I regret that I was unable to meet with you due to a heavily committed schedule. However, it is my understanding that you met Mr. Steve Verheul, Canada’s Chief Negotiator for the CETA, to discuss your views on the negotiations.

The Government of Canada is committed to keeping Canadians informed of the negotiations and to consulting as extensively as possible to ensure that an agreement meets the needs of Canadians.

Canada’s CETA negotiator told us today that while he has been taking note of the questions and comments, DFAIT has not produced a report. Rather, the “kinds of issues being raised on this call” are brought to the attention of Minister Fast. Both networks maintain these briefings do not constitute proper public consultations. Last week, the Council of Canadians joined over 80 organizations in Europe and Canada in calling for the CETA negotiations to stop and for all offers to be made public and subject to democratic debate.

BRIEFING FROM CANADA’S LEAD NEGOTIATOR

Here’s my transcript of today’s briefing. All square brackets are to provide further explanation of what the lead negotiator is saying.

The [CETA] negotiations are getting increasingly difficult. We are “clearing the field in many issues” but they’re getting more difficult.

The focus last week was on services and investment offers, which were exchanged on October 13 before the round. On the EU side it’s the first time they’ve used a negative list [whereby only those service sectors a country or province wants to exclude are listed] so it took them a long time preparing it with member states. It’s the first time Canada has made specific offers at the provincial and territorial level too, and it’s taken us close to two years to prepare them with the provinces and territories. The EU has had less time – five or six months [since acquiring the mandate to negotiate using the negative list approach] – and the difference has been shown. The EU offer needs some clean-up because there is duplication and overlap [with member state offers in the GATS and elsewhere]. We’ll consider further requests where there are interests that may go beyond the offers on the table in the next month or two. We will see if we can get services and investment to same level as goods and procurement where issues are narrowed down.

Apart from that, there was good progress in a number of areas: Technical Barriers to Trade [ex. regulations], mutual recognition of qualifications [for professions], domestic regulation as it relates to services and investment, dispute settlement, some progress on monopolies and state enterprise, and a fair amount of progress on environment and labour after it stalled in past few rounds. We had a bit of progress in challenging areas like rules of origin – some progress on agricultural products, copyright (given the bill in the House we’ve been able to give signals on some of those issues), and our first in depth discussion on investment rules given the EU only got their mandate [on investment] a little over a month ago, so it’s the early stages of discussion.

There were productive talks on financial services, an area that lags given the concerns about financial difficulties around the world. Going forward, all offers are on the table in terms of market access and we’re looking at cross-cutting issues related to how a particular business or sector will be affected by the range of market access issues that cut across services, investment and procurement.

The provinces and territories were out in number last week with 50 representatives. We’ve gone through the provincial elections so we’re entering a stable political period. On the EU side they’re having challenges with the debt crisis but their commitment to the negotiations hasn’t changed – they want this concluded as quickly as they can.

Overall, one area we spent a lot of time on was rules of origin. We have a challenge here because just as the EU has spent the past two decades integrating [its economy] we’ve made a lot of moves in North America for many sectors of economic activity, so it becomes a challenge determining what a Canadian product is for preferential treatment. The rules of origin are challenging in automobiles, fish, agricultural products and textiles and apparel. That was an issue we spent a lot of time on in the course of the week.

Beyond that we’re spending a lot of time on conformity assessment with respect to regulatory standards, working out something where we’re authorized to accredit to EU standards. So a company could have their product accredited to EU standards here in Canada by a Canadian standards body, which would save money. That’s been an issue of considerable interest to some of the private sector.

On government procurement we exchanged questions on our offer. There was no further movement but a process of clarification so we understand what’s behind each other’s offer and find the right kind of balance so we both are clear on what we’re getting. And on issues of intellectual property, it’s fairly well behind. On copyright we’ve made some progress on the [copyright] bill in the house. On geographic indications, last week we got into more in-depth discussion on some products. And on pharmaceuticals and patents we’ve yet to make any progress. We’re both holding our positions.

Going forward as far as process, the ninth round was the last formal round. We’re moving to focused negotiations on narrower issues and increasingly sensitive ones. That will consist of weekly video conferences or teleconferences on narrow agendas to move them forward. We’ll also have regular face to face meetings with the EU. The first one is the week of December 5 in Brussels. Then in mid-January in Ottawa. So the process will no longer have formal rounds and a more constant negotiation in terms of interaction with the EU.

Overall the talks are getting into more and more difficult issues. The atmosphere is positive and constructive and we’re making progress in most areas. Probably around Feb or March we’ll want to take stock and consider what type of process we want to take, see what’s outstanding. We need to know at what stage we go political for decisions on sensitive issues.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

1. Demand to see the provincial offers on procurement, services and investment.
2. Pass a resolution in your community or school board demanding an exemption from CETA
3.  Don’t let CETA privatize our water! Have your city or province commit to protecting water services from trade agreements.
4. Learn more about CETA and spread the word using the materials on the Council of Canadians website.