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Harper and Day in Prague: Canada “open for business”… again

The Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade may have moderately improved its web page devoted to the Canada-EU “economic partnership” agreement (aka trade, investment, services and procurement liberalization agreement), but the Prime Minister’s announcement at the end of the 2009 Canada-EU summit in Prague this week, like the media coverage that preceded and followed it, was low on details, as was the joint statement following yesterday’s summit: http://international.gc.ca/missions/eu-ue/summits_sommets/summit_prague-2009_joint-declaration-eng.asp.

In the absence of specifics on what exactly is being negotiated across the Atlantic, media coverage mostly focused on the EU seal product ban, differences between Harper’s and Europe’s environmental ambitions, and a new open skies agreement that is said to save travellers millions of dollars but at the potential loss of Canada’s entire airline industry.

As reported by Canwest news, “When the [open skies] deal is ratified, Phase 1 will permit unrestricted direct services between Canada and the EU, without any limitations on the number of flights operated or the prices to be offered.” But phase 2 will “enable European investors to own up to 49 per cent of a Canadian carrier’s voting equity, an increase from the current 25 per cent.” Bill C-10, the budget implementation legislation, paved the way for these changes in ownership rules. (To see how your MP voted on C-10: http://www.howdtheyvote.ca/bill.php?id=1614.)

The New York Times adds that “Ultimately, full ownership rights are envisaged,” where a similar agreement between Europe and the United States last year limited European ownership of American airlines to 25 per cent – the level Canada allowed before this new deal.

Harry Gow of the advocacy group Transport 2000 told Canwest he is doubtful Canada’s “fragile” airline industry will survive this new pact because “We are barely able to manage to keep one medium-size airline solvent in Canada.”

That’s a pretty generous offer for Harper to be making to European corporations (with a typical absence of discussion with Canadians). What gives?

It appears that like Mulroney before him, Harper is declaring Canada “open for business” all over again, with the open skies agreement a sign of things to come in other sectors, as well as public domains previously untouched by international trade and investment agreements.

At least one Canadian news commentator understands this. Paul Wells writes in this week’s Maclean’s that “It’s far too modest to call this a free trade deal.” He cites just some of the domains Harper has put on the table: “Topics like supply management and the Canadian Wheat Board… Municipal procurement, which would allow German and French manufacturers to bid on subway contracts in Toronto and Vancouver on the same basis as local manufacturers. Securities regulation.”

There’s a reason they say this agreement will go far “beyond NAFTA” in what it promises investors on both continents.

“No wonder the fans and foes of liberalized trade are lining up,” writes Wells this week. “This is big.”

Also, as Wells points out, there are so many ways the negotiations could fall apart – from Ontario and Quebec’s attachment to supply management of their dairy industries to Europe’s reluctance to eat Canadian beef or genetically modified wheat to disagreements on how to best regulate the production and sale of toxic chemicals (Europe’s rules are tougher, which puts Canadian imports of some products at risk).

But would that really be more horrible than if these economic partnership talks cruise to completion within two years as expected? Until news sources – fingers pointed squarely at the CBC here – can move beyond the novelty of expanding Canada’s trading relationship outside the NAFTA region, Canadians will remain hopeless in the dark on exactly what the Harper government is getting us into here – without our explicit permission, we should add.

Note to CBC: Read the joint Canada-EU scoping document, find out who is supporting the agreement and who is calling for more transparency and caution, and let’s hash this out like grown ups.

For the most comprehensive take on the problems with the Canada-EU negotiations, see Blair Redlin’s rabble.ca article, “Just what we don’t need: An investor rights deal with the EU.”