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CETA – A threat to local democracy

This week, European Union trade officials are in Canada to meet with their Canadian counterparts on what might be the final round of negotiations on a huge new trade agreement called CETA – the Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement. Because it will affect every Canadian, it is urgent that we get a debate going in this country on this massive new free trade deal.

Unlike some other trade agreements, CETA has had very little media attention or public profile. There are two reasons for this. The first is that the Harper government has kept CETA under wraps and negotiated it in secret. We only know the perimeters of CETA through unofficial reports, the Europeans themselves, who are very open about their demands, and through a now dated leaked draft of the text. The Harper government is ideologically driven by a belief in the privatization, deregulation and strengthened corporate power that attend trade deals like CETA and others it is negotiating, and does not encourage debate on any of them.

The other reason CETA has had little opposition is that many Canadians have an out-dated view of Europe as having higher social, environmental, and worker standards and believe that diversifying our trade away from the U.S. to a more enlightened jurisdiction such as Europe must be a good thing. Indeed, a few years ago, I would have felt the same way.

What Canadians need to know is that Europe is going through a profound transformation. As part of its unification process, it has adopted an agreement on procurement that not only allows the private sector of each country free entry into all other EU countries, but also paves the way for their success by promoting – often by law – public private partnerships to enhance business opportunities for these corporations. As a result, Europe is privatizing its public utilities and services such as transit, water, postal, and hydro at an alarming rate. This is the model of development being negotiated for Canada in CETA. Add to this the “austerity measures” now being imposed on many European countries, which include the wholesale sell off of assets such as water, and we are talking about a very different Europe where workers are struggling for basic rights and basic social services are being privatized.

CETA poses a grave threat to Canada’s social programs and public services because, for the first time, the provinces are at the table negotiating away their own rights and those of their municipalities. CETA allows corporations to bid on all “sub-national procurement,” that is, all the ways in which provincial and municipal levels of governments spend our tax revenues. Access to these levels of government contracts was not available in previous trade deals and represents the mother lode for foreign companies, anywhere from $100 billion to $200 billion a year.

European corporations want to sell Canadians the services we now receive publicly, services such as health care, education, water and mail delivery, and CETA will give these private companies the right to bid on government tenders for goods and services including schools, hospitals, airports, public transit, ports, and hydro projects to name just a few. Any rules or practices that favour local economic development, support local food production or promote local or Canadian goods and services will be challenged as unfair barriers to trade. As well, these corporations will have the right to challenge any local laws that promote fair trade or reflect the environmental concerns of the community, such as bottled water bans.

Europe is also in a race with China to nail down access to raw resources such as Canada’s fish, potash, natural gas, forests, and minerals and will gain permanent access to these resources through an “investor-state” provision of CETA that will give European corporations the right to sue Canadian governments if they try to interfere with their “right to profit.” Under a similar provision in NAFTA, the Harper government shockingly recently paid an American pulp and paper corporation, Abitibi Bowater, $130 million for the timber and water “rights” the company claimed when it picked up and left Newfoundland and the workers high and dry.

The National Farmer’s Union is deeply worried that the Harper government will sacrifice supply managed poultry and dairy farming in Canada and give big European agribusiness companies the right to further erode farmer rights to save, exchange and sell seeds from their crops. The move this week to kill the Wheat Board in spite of its very high rating of approval by Western wheat farmers, is a sure sign that the Harper government will sacrifice family farms to get this deal.

Canadians should also know that a clear European demand in CETA is to bring our patent regime for brand name pharmaceuticals into line with their own more business friendly regime. A study done by the Universities of Calgary and Toronto reported that these changes would cost Canadians almost $3 billion more in drug costs a year. Drugs are the fastest-growing component of health care costs in Canada; yet there has been little public debate about this aspect of CETA.

Public awareness of this dangerous trade deal has been growing. Paul Moist, President of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, and I have been on a cross-country tour called Canadian Communities Are Not For Sale and have had a tremendous response. When Canadians find out what is in CETA, they quickly become opposed. Many municipalities have now passed resolutions demanding to know more about the CETA threat to their jurisdictions and, in particular, many are demanding that water services be fully exempt.

Even long-time supporters of free trade are questioning it. Peter Clark, former government trade negotiator, says that he sees no way that Canada will get a good deal and that Canada “will pay dearly” for CETA. And Michael Hart, Carleton University trade professor, disputes the government claim that CETA will create lots of jobs: “Trade agreements do not create jobs. Never have. Never will, ” he says.

CETA negotiations have reached an advanced stage. It is crucial that we demand a national debate and more forthcoming information from the Harper government about just what is on the table. Otherwise, the Conservatives are planning to sign CETA with Europe in the first half of 2012 and then bring it to the House of Commons – where their majority will allow it passage without Canadian consultation – and that will be the first time Canadians get to see what our government bargained away. This is not how democracy works.

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