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CETA: “Fake news” and “Canada bashing”?

On February 18, the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) passed in the lower house of the Netherlands Parliament by just three votes, 71 to 68. After a raucous debate, several days in the making, it is looking like CETA may have survived for now, but is unlikely to pass in the upper house.

Financial newspapers were stunned. The Netherlands, the nation that invented trade, rejecting a trade agreement? How is that possible?  

Well, it was possible, due to the incredible work of Dutch grassroots groups and their efforts to alert the Dutch public to CETA’s effects. These groups include SOMOMilieudefensiefoodwatch NetherlandsBoth ENDS and trade unions under the umbrella of Wij stoppen CETA, just to name a few.

CETA supporters refer to our critiques as “fake news” and “Canada bashing.”

As mentioned previously, CETA is less about trade than about rules that give corporations special rights. Canadian exports to Europe have actually declined since the agreement came into force provisionally two years ago. This will only get worse when Brexit is fully applied and Britain is no longer part of CETA.

The Dutch were rightly worried about the agreement’s Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) mechanisms, which allow big corporations to sue states over their policies. They were also concerned about how the agreement may undermine Europe’s higher food safety and agriculture standards and how it reinforces Canada’s fossil fuel industry and its high levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

As an outsider, I was honoured to be invited to participate in the Dutch process. Together with Maude Barlow, the Council of Canadians Honorary Chairperson, we wrote an op-ed piece in NRC, a major Dutch financial newspaper. (Here is a rough English translation.)

In it we state, “Global cooperation is desperately needed to tackle today’s problems. This includes global agreements to regulate world trade in the interest of the planet. Unfortunately, CETA in no way meets that ambition: it is old wine in new bottles. If we reject this treaty, we can take the route towards fair, sustainable trade. And we can set more ambitious goals for the benefit of all of us and not just a number of rich companies.”

With foodwatch Netherlands, the Council of Canadians produced a report, The Potential Dangers of CETA committees on Europe, illustrating how just one meeting of one CETA committee could cause harm.

We dug through documents obtained under access-to-information rules to show how our government was actively using CETA to undermine European food safety rules.  

According to our research, on various issues ranging from animal and health legislation to pesticide and herbicide levels, along with the European Union’s vital precautionary principle, Canada was using CETA’s Sanitary and Phytosanitary Committee to undermine European regulations. One of the many committees created by the agreement has as its goal to discuss regulations that may affect trade.

In 2016, we wrote a report titled Food Safety: Agriculture and Regulatory Cooperation in the Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with a number of European groups, warning that CETA and these committees could threaten food safety rules.

Even so, I was surprised to the extent that this was true.

In regards to the precautionary principle, the results are chilling. This principle, which underpins key European legislation on food, chemicals and pesticides, requires that member states take preventive action where there is a risk to public health and biodiversity. It is a first-rate regulatory approach, that forces companies to prove that a product is not dangerous before approval is granted, rather than regulators having to prove a product is dangerous for approval to be denied. Canada does not fully recognize this type of principle.

Following complaints from Canadian regulatory officials, the EU reassured Canada that “the long-term goal for the EU is to move away from a risk-based cut-off criterion as the basis for regulatory decisions.”

According to documents we obtained, Canada appears to have been successful in changing minimum residue levels for pesticides and herbicides. In a few cases involving dimethoate, a pesticide, and glyphosate, a herbicide, the CETA committee not only agreed with Canada but also decided to embark on an advocacy campaign to change EU regulations as well as those of member states.

The documents show that at various points, Canadian regulators appear to have issued subtle threats to challenge the EU at the World Trade Organization if their rules were maintained. In response, the EU regulators assured Canadian regulators that legislation would change, or that Canada would be given an opportunity to participate in the EU legislative process.

Not surprisingly, the United States was lurking in the shadows. Canadian regulators often referred to the importance of the U.S. market and how Canadian rules must harmonize with U.S. rather than European regulations. With the new NAFTA and its intense regulatory cooperation chapter, this tendency will only get worse. It is a regulatory race to the bottom where public authorities lose their ability to regulate multinational corporations.

foodwatch Netherlands released our report on a widely watched television show on consumer matters, Radar, a few days before the Dutch parliamentary debate. Our report was covered in Le Monde, a leading French newspaper. In response, Sigrid Kaag, the Foreign Trade Minister of the Netherlands, wrote to all MPs denouncing not only our report, but the efforts of the Dutch campaign to educate people about ISDS, basically calling us the Dutch equivalent of “fake news.”

But we persisted. Other Canadians, including some politicians, went to bat. Elected members from the Green Party, the NDP and Québec solidaire, in a letter to Dutch lawmakers (in English and French), urged them not to ratify CETA.

On the day of the vote, we knew it would be close. No party has a majority in the Dutch Parliament, and we knew that the Labour Party had recently come out against the deal. Much of the Parliament was against CETA. In the ruling coalition, one of the parties, the farm-based Christian Union, had serious concerns about agriculture and food regulations. They were not sure how they would vote.

In the end, the Dutch government reassured them that they would try to control Canadian food safety standards and rein in the CETA committees.

The Dutch lower house passed a motion to ensure democratic oversight of the CETA committees:  “This chamber, after hearing the deliberations, and noting that efforts are already being made in the working groups of the EU-Canada CETA Joint Committee to lower European standards, calls on the government to take initiatives for greater democratic control and transparency for the European Parliament and national parliaments on the treaty committees in free trade agreements such as CETA.”

But it is not over yet. The party composition of the Dutch Senate suggests it is unlikely to pass there.

In France, CETA barely squeaked through the National Assembly in July, and its ratification is being postponed in the Senate due to national outrage over the deal. Those who voted for the deal are paying a high political cost. Isabelle Hudon, Canada’s ambassador to France, has dismissed these concerns as “Canada bashing.”

In Belgium, some regional governments still oppose CETA and have yet to ratify it.

Nor has it been approved in Germany where more than 300,000 Germans have come out to protest the deal.

Many are hearing the message that opposing CETA is not the same as being against Canadians or European friendship, but about being against a blueprint for trade that usurps power from democratic bodies and gives it to large multinational corporations.