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CETA toxic in France, why not in Canada?

On July 23, the French National Assembly ratified the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA). 

At the same time, in Montréal, a group of EU and Canadian politicians were celebrating this apparent victory. While there was little criticism in Canada, a big political storm was brewing in France.

Rally in a park in front of the National Assembly.

I was in Paris during ratification, working with the French coalition that opposes the agreement, and it was far from a cakewalk. In mid-summer as the French were enjoying Bastille Day and their long European vacations, not all was tranquil. CETA is politically poisonous in France. All but one of the opposition parties, whether on the right or left side of the spectrum, voted against the agreement.

In fact, only a minority of French parliamentarians voted for the agreement. With 266 votes in favour, 213 against and 74 abstentions, there was not a clear majority for CETA. Only members of President Emmanuel Macron’s ruling party, La République en marche, and a few members of the MoDem Party supported the agreement. Within the president’s party, it was the most contested policy ever put to a vote. Nine members voted against the agreement.

Sujata Dey (front on right), fresh off the plane, at said rally.

What ensued was chaos. Before and during the vote, farmers’ groups and environmentalists rallied all over the country. Many, such as the prominent environmentalist and former Macron environment minister Nicolas Hulot, questioned how the National Assembly could welcome Greta Thunberg, the teenager sounding the alarm over climate change the same day they voted on a treaty that would curtail the ability to combat it.

National Assembly members who voted for the agreement have since been chastised in the media, slammed on Twitter, booed in public and unfortunately, had their offices trashed by farmers and protesters. So far, 20 offices have been vandalized. In one case, farmers dumped manure outside the offices.

Meanwhile, on this side of the Atlantic, while many criticize the agreement, the government’s blind faith in CETA is unfazed. Even while trade statistics show that Canada’s exports to Europe have not increased since the provisional implementation of the agreement almost two years ago, and Canada has had to swallow policies that cut into our farmers’ livelihoods, raise drug prices by extending patents, and hurt jobs by restricting our governments ability to buy local. 

For example, because of CETA, Via Rail was prohibited from preferring Bombardier as a train supplier, contributing indirectly to job losses in La Pocatière and Thunder Bay. In fact, Canada’s trade deficit with the EU has increased $10 billion, reaching $30 billion since the agreement went into force, according to economist Jim Stanford, something predicted by EU and Canadian economic studies. And it will only get worse when our largest EU trading partner, Great Britain, Brexits out of CETA.

During the French ratification, civil society and politicians in Québec and across Canada, including the leaders of the NDP and the Green Party, wrote to French MNAs urging them not to ratify the agreement.

In response, Prime Minister Trudeau and Trade Minister Jim Carr attacked members of Parliament for daring to critique the holy grail of free trade. In my view, it should not be Trudeau attacking MPs who dare to have a debate, but us challenging the Canadian government over its uncritical support of trade agreements at any cost, agreements that entrench the power of corporations and the one per cent within our global economy.

Sign seen in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin.

Canada has not only restructured its policies to meet CETA, but has now gone on the attack in Europe, using the regulatory harmonization chapter to whittle away at Europe’s tougher pesticide regulations. 

It has already used the World Trade Organization (WTO) over 20 times to challenge EU chemical regulations as well as the EU bans on hormones in meat production and on GMOs. Our meat industry is unable to meet the EU’s higher standards, but instead is trying to lobby them to change their regulations Canada is challenging them through the WTO.

During the CETA negotiations the Harper government successfully lobbied to prevent the EU from labelling tar sands oil as more polluting.

While the European Parliament ratified CETA in 2017, some provisions such as the controversial investor-state dispute mechanism allowing corporations to sue states over their policies must be ratified by the 28 European member states and, in some cases, their respective regional governments.

In the fall, the agreement will go to the Netherlands, where there have been demands for a referendum. There are many European voices questioning the infallibility of so-called trade agreements.