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CETA conference asks “public good or private interest”?

It’s 11:35 a.m. at Carleton University in Ottawa. Larry Brown of the National Union of Public and General Employees is telling an audience of about 50 people that CETA, the Canada-EU free trade negotiations, are based on magical numbers. The audience is made up of European embassy people, EU and DFAIT staff, students and quite a few members of the Trade Justice Network come to hear about and, during breaks, debate the CETA from different perspectives. Brown is explaining that according to government pronouncements, the final deal is supposed to boost GDP in Canada by $12 billion and about $17 billion in Europe. How will a trade agreement do this — produce something out of nothing? It’s never explained, he says. The joint study issued by Canada and the EU in 2008 is a statement of opinion, according to Brown, who is also the president of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. The CCPA is one of three co-sponsors of today’s CETA conference, called ‘A Canada-EU Free Trade Agreement: Public Good or Private Interest‘? You know how we’d answer that question. Nothing in the presentations so far has convinced me we’re wrong.

After a fairly weak plug for CETA from the Belgian ambassador to Canada, in which he admitted that CETA was more “an important political statement” designed to keep “the ghosts of protectionism from getting out of the bottle,” NDP trade critic Peter Julian questioned CETA in the context of a need to rethink Canadian trade policy generally. He challenged what he called the three rhetorical foundations of free trade: First, that it increases exports; Second, that it raises all boats and leads to common welfare, and; Third, that it is apolitical or neutral, not a left or right agenda but a natural agenda that it would be crazy to oppose.

Julian explained that with most Canadian free trade agreements, exports went down in the ten years after signing. He cited Jim Stanford’s new study for the CCPA (Stanford will present this afternoon), which goes into the real economics of CETA and is highly critical of the government projections. Julian said that based on his research with the Library of Parliament, and this is backed up by recent Statistics Canada reports, real income has gone down for middle and lower income Canadians since 1989 — the year the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement came into force. He urged his colleagues on trade committee, though they were not in the room, to discuss the facts on free trade rather than simply attacking anyone who challenges it as a policy option.

Kurt Huebner, director of the Institute for European Studies at the University of British Columbia, followed with a caution that CETA is much more than what most people understand to be a free trade deal. He described the large trade deficits (in goods and services) that Canada has right now with European countries, which will only worsen after a deal is signed. He also implicitly agreed with CCPA senior trade analyst Scott Sinclair, who presented next, that CETA is a way for Harper to kill two birds with one deal: keep the free trade dream alive and liberalize (privatize) Canada’s economy. However, his statement that civil society in Canada is “passively ignorant” was a little ignorant and poorly explained in the Q+A session after.

Sinclair focused on the extent to which CETA would limit democratic governance at the sub-federal level, in large part because of the procurement chapter on the table. He cautioned about how imbalanced the negotiations were and urged Canadians and Europeans to recognize the benefit to using public procurement for social or environmental goals that benefit the public. Following the morning break, and after Brown’s presentation, David Long, a professor at the Norman Patterson School of International Affairs, challenged the critique of procurement liberalization as anti-foreigner! It was an odd and inappropriate deflection. And that’s where we’re at now — Q+A session for the Brown-Long discussion.

There’s much coming up after the break. Congratulations to CCPA, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation and the Canada-Europe Transatlantic Dialogue at Carleton University for organizing this important event designed to shed light on the publicly blacked out CETA negotiations.

A fifth round of Canada-EU trade talks wrapped up this week in Ottawa. The Harper government remains belligerent. In response to the CCPA report yesterday which predicts massive job losses from CETA as proposed, Trade Minister Peter Van Loan said:

“The fact is they are ideologically opposed to an agreement that hasn’t even been completed yet… I have no difficulty dismissing that and focusing on the fact that this is a free trade deal that offers enormous upside potential for Canadian jobs.”

Translation: I have no problem ignoring what has been put in front of me as if it were never written, as if it does not contain facts contradicting the Harper position. I am confident this deal is good for Canada.

No matter your opinion of free trade or the CETA negotiations, a policy of forced ignorance about the negotiations is definitely not in the public interest, and probably not even in the private interest. Almost lunch, then more CETA!