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Conservatives refuse trade committee update on CETA negotiations; deal “in principle” possible by Xmas

On Thursday, NDP International Trade Critic Don Davies asked trade committee to call on Trade Minister Ed Fast to testify on the status of the Canada-EU free trade negotiations, and on the content of recently leaked documents describing an imbalance in the last-minute trade-offs. Conservatives on the committee shot him down. That means the people who are supposed to be on top of trade negotiations may not get a chance to discuss CETA until after the deal is done. Which according to Quebec CETA negotiator Pierre Marc Johnson could happen “in principle” before the holidays.

“Recent leaked documents from the EU side show that the Conservatives are about to make major concessions on supply management, public procurement, investor rights and intellectual property,” said Davies in a press release before he presented his motion to the committee. “Canadian parliamentarians — particularly those of us who serve on the International Trade Committee — deserve to receive information on this critical deal.”

Or not. Later in the day, Davies tweeted the following:

Cons REFUSE to deal w/ NDP Motion to call Trade Minister to Trade Ctee to answer questions on CETA. So much for being “open & accountable”!

As the NDP pointed out in its release yesterday, the European Commission regularly briefs members of the EU trade committee about ongoing trade negotiations, providing MEPs with draft texts and explanatory notes. This is not public information (like it should be in this day and age) but it gives European decisionmakers a much better idea of what is going on in the CETA negotiations than Canadian politicians have.

In Canada, the federal government has briefed civil society and business groups after most of the CETA negotiating rounds, though the latter typically sign confidentiality agreements that grant them access to otherwise confidential information about the text and negotiations. (See the recent Huffington Post article on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Canada Creating Secret ‘Insider Group’ of Lobbyists, Observers Say.)

But even we haven’t heard anything about CETA from the government since October. This is despite Canada and the EU now being into the very final stretch, with the technical negotiations set to conclude in Ottawa by the end of next week, according to the ever confident Pierre Marc Johnson, who hung onto his job as lead negotiator on CETA despite the recent change in government.

Even the political negotiations (between Minister Fast and EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht) “have a good chance of concluding before Christmas,” he told Le Devoir. If that were the case, they could announce a deal “in principle” without delay, or they may wait to announce it in the first week of January.

Our sources tell us it is more likely that De Gucht and EU Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Cioloş will travel to Canada in mid-January for a second ministerial meeting with Minister Fast and Canadian Agrifood Minister Gerry Ritz.

The presence of Cioloş and Ritz at this second political negotiation, following Fast’s failed attempt to finish the deal in Brussels last month, shows the important place of agricultural products in the final trade-offs. And it’s not just a matter of beef vs. milk. According to the leaked EU documents, Canada is putting a lot on the line for what will be, at the end of the day, very modest agricultural gains into the EU. Thus the imbalance that the European Commission reflects in the leaked reports.

Those of us fighting CETA should not be discouraged with how close a deal may be. Nothing is guaranteed. The political gamble may prove too much. And if worse comes to worst, the most controversial parts of CETA — municipal procurement, changes to Canada’s pharmaceutical regime and patent extension, the investor-state dispute settlement chapter, the impact on public services — will only become more controversial once the details are out in the open, with a text politicians and the media can finally look over (reluctant as both groups are to comment on leaked text, as the Harper government no doubt appreciates).

For now it’s important to keep putting pressure on federal and provincial members of parliament to reject an EU trade deal that compromises our economic options, environmental protections and local democracy. If your municipality hasn’t passed a CETA motion, there’s no better moment to approach local councillors. If your community is on our CETA map, your local councillors might like to know that according to the new leaks, the federal and provincial governments have ignored them. You’ll find a number of simple actions you can take on our webiste here.