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High EU food safety standards a sticking point for Canadian agri-food sector, trade committee hears

Having finished with the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, which will face a third reading vote on Monday in the House of Commons, the Standing Committee on International Trade has turned to CETA, the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement negotiations between Canada and the European Union. Witnesses at Thursday’s trade committee hearing included Roy McLaren and Jason Langrish of the Canada Europe Roundtable for Business (CERT), Richard Philips with the Grain Growers of Canada, and Kathleen Sullivan with the Canadian Agri-Food Trade Alliance. All were enthusiastic supporters of CETA but with one important and I think very accurate caveat from Ms. Sullivan: If Canadian negotiators cannot successfully remove or make redundant Europe’s stricter environmental and food safety standards then the agreement should not proceed because it will not be worth it to Canadian exporters.

The transcript from Tuesday’s trade committee hearing isn’t online yet but you can listen to the audio from the CIIT website. I’ll just go through what I thought were some of its more interesting moments…

An economic NATO
Mr. Maclaren is a former trade minister who called for a Canada-EU FTA in 1992 and has headed CERT since 1999. CERT has been a broken record on the need for a free trade deal with the EU since its government-backed inception. A previous attempt to get one — the Trade and Investment Enhancement Agreement — faded out of view in 2006.

Mr. Maclaren started off comparing CETA to an economic alliance of NATO. Doha is dead, he said, and this would be a milestone for the EU — the first FTA with a developed country but also with a federation. The EU would turn to Australia and the United States if CETA is successful, he said.

CERT executive director Mr. Langrish said it took a lot of DFAIT lobbying of EU member states to get Brussels back to the table. The EU Commission (EC) was more interested in Asia and Latin America but EU negotiators have come to appreciate how easy it’s been talking to Canada. Why not — ‘everything is on the table’ as the CERT witnesses pointed out a couple of times. If CETA fails, predicted Mr. Langrish, India and other countries on the Harper government and business community’s radar won’t take Canada seriously.

WTO best, CETA second best
The Canadian Agri-Food Trade Alliance, represented by Ms. Sullivan and Mr. Philips, noted that Canada has dropped from 3rd to 9th biggest food exporter in the past decade and that the European market is “under-serviced”. The Alliance has not given up on Doha, which it considers the best way to get international “rules based” trade in agricultural products. Canadian food exporters are willing to humour the CETA negotiations as the next best thing to a successful end to the Doha ‘Development’ Round.

But the barriers in Europe are related to food safety and inspection regimes. They are also cultural as much as economic. Europeans simply demand more of their producers on safety and can you blame them? Look at the recent listeriosis crisis in Canada — twenty people dead thanks to a broken inspection system and we expect Europe to buy Canadian?

Europeans are also much more skeptical of genetically modified crops. In general, they embrace the precautionary principle when it comes to things we eat and, often, things we put into the environment. So certification regimes on pulp and paper products are tougher also — another ‘barrier’ to Canadian exports.

Success for Ms. Sullivan and Mr. Philips would include a strong dispute process that was based on scientific evidence — code language for the North American “risk management” approach that trusts food producers to do the right thing and only steps in once the wrong thing happens, which inevitably it does. European negotiators will need a lot of sugar to help that medicine go down, which is why the agri-food industry is so pleased that Canadian negotiators have put local procurement, financial and telecom services, intellectual property, supply management and other sensitive areas on the table as a bargaining chip.

Need an exit strategy from CETA
Ms. Sullivan warned that Canada needs an exit strategy if EU negotiators don’t agree to lower their food safety standards or mutually recognize Canada’s (which they won’t, and we shouldn’t be hoping they will). “The deal with the EU has to be meaningful,” she said in trade committee. “If we can’t solve these issues we should not be moving forward.”

In one sense it’s good to see the parliamentary trade committee showing an interest in CETA before its signed. It dropped the ball on the Buy American agreement then, despite opposition from the NDP and Bloc, whitewashed Colombia’s human rights record to speed through clause-by-clause consideration of that deal. Liberal and Conservative impatience meant the committee only voted on 7 of 37 clauses before rushing it back to the House.

Trade committee hears from Canadian CETA negotiators on Tuesday. We’ll have to keep an eye on all of them to make sure CETA doesn’t get blindly rushed into law like the Colombia FTA did. As the much larger of the two deals, with more potential impacts on Canadian jobs and public policy, Canadians can’t afford to let their politicians blow it on this one. We’ve only had one day of hearings into CETA and supporters of the deal are already cautioning that it might not be worth the effort.

I’ll be following the trade committee hearings as they happen. In the meantime, why not write your MP about CETA, express your concerns and demand some answers!

Oh, and no harm in writing the Liberals to insist they vote against the Colombia FTA on Monday. You’ll have to rework our action alert but you can use the template letter here.