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Montreal chapter organizes CETA discussion on state of play of negotiations

I’d like to thank Abdul Pirani and Claire Adamson from the Montreal chapter for organizing Wednesday’s public discussion on the state of play of the Canada-EU free trade negotiations. It was good to meet Martine Chatelain, president of Eau Secours, and also to share a hot seat with Claude Vaillancourt of ATTAC-Quebec. Claude and Catherine Caron of ATTAC have been fundamental in putting CETA on the agenda in Quebec. After the public discussion, we half-joked that CETA started with Quebec but might end with Quebec also. Perhaps no other province stands to lose as much economic sovereignty from a final deal with the EU.

The event was bilingual, with Claude starting us off in French on a history of the Canada-EU free trade talks and the importance of Quebec. Since NAFTA, there has been a multi-party (in Canada) attempt to create a transatlantic free trade zone including the U.S. and Mexico but without much success, he said. In 2007, Jean Charest resurrected the dream, running for election on a promise to put Quebec at the centre of a vast economic space. The province would develop its northern resources, sign free trade deals with Ontario and the EU, and position itself as the thumping heart for an expanded transatlantic trade corridor.

Claude talked about the links between the Agreement on Internal Trade (comprising all provinces, territories and the federal government), the Ontario-Quebec Trade and Cooperation Agreement, and CETA. Not only are they all negotiated by the same small group of people, but the agreements feed into one another, with the aim of bringing corporate globalization’s market disciplines into as much human economic interaction as possible. He used culture as an example. Where the EU and Canada have traditionally been strong believers in the UN declaration on cultural diversity, now the EU is looking to dismantle Canadian protections on broadcasting, magazines and publishing so major European companies can increase their market share in North America.

Even if we think of the EU as socially progressive, Claude said it is the EU member states who maintain these programs and protections against the largely corporate interests of the European Commission. It’s the Commission negotiating trade deals, so commercial interests clearly win out over social, environmental and other considerations. This is the dynamic in the CETA negotiations, he said, referring to a very hardline position from the EU against scattered, unequal and, in cases like GMOs, unachievable Canadian requests.

Claude also emphasized the lack of real consultation with groups outside the business community. There are briefings for civil society groups, but business was offered a questionnaire asking companies to list perceived trade barriers in the EU, even if they were environmental or public health rules. The Canadian government’s job, it seems, was to work to remove those barriers, or in other words to undermine public policy. The recent news articles about Canadian lobbying against the EU Fuel Quality Directive, and threats to walk away from CETA if it contains a specific high carbon value for tar sands, are proof the Harper government takes its responsibility to corporate Canada very seriously.

I followed Claude’s presentation, beginning with a question to the group about what it considered the major problems facing the world today. The answers were many: poverty, climate change, financial instability, food security. So I asked how many of these problems CETA hopes to fix. The answer is none of them. In fact, CETA can only increase climate and food insecurity, worsen inequality and do nothing for poverty. If free trade and trickle-down economics worked, we would have seen average incomes in Canada growing, not stagnating, since 1985. We’d see shared prosperity within and between nations. On the contrary, free trade has created some very rich people, and it has given them a bigger share of the economic pie. CETA is designed mostly by and for them.

I talked about the importance of public procurement for our communities’ economic future. Being able to favour local or sustainable businesses, or social and Aboriginal enterprises, are among the last real powers municipal and provincial governments have to direct economic activity, level the playing field and support sustainable production. The EU’s proposals in CETA would undermine those powers while offering no comparable benefits elsewhere. Canada’s request to the EU in exchange for giving up procurement is that they open their market to Canadian goods such as beef, pork, fish, grain, etc. There’s something uneven and, worse, unsustainable about that bargain.

Then we discussed the threats of privatization associated with CETA’s investment and services chapter, and the inevitable increase in drug costs from the proposed intellectual property chapter. We touched on Canada’s strange request to put investment protections in CETA that dozens of U.S. companies have used to undermine Canadian public health, resource-related and environmental policy. The recent $150-million AbibitiBowater settlement under NAFTA’s investment chapter has had no effect on the Harper government. It still believes it is a good thing to give investors the legal right to sue governments for compensation when public policy hurts profits. It’s… how should I put this… insane.

(The good news is the NDP has secured trade committee hearings into the AbibitiBowater settlement. Council of Canadians board member Stephen Shrybman will be presenting to committee on the issue on Tuesday. I’ll be live blogging the hearings on Tuesday and Thursday so watch this space, or follow me on Twitter @StuJT.)

Claude and I followed these short presentations with a good discussion with the group on the growing fight back against CETA, the important role our municipalities must take in asserting their rights, and what Europeans think of the deal. They like it less and less, we said. It’s good news.


By chance, Wednesday afternoon I was part of a briefing on the state of play of the CETA talks from Canada’s lead negotiator, Steve Verheul, and Deputy Chief-Negotiator Ana Renart, for the Trade and Investment Research Project out of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. It was frank and informative. On top of the high profile issues of how CETA will affect climate policy and drug costs, other fissures are emerging, some of which could delay if not compromise completion of the deal. These include:

Investment: Canada had been pushing the EU to use a negative list on services commitments (a sector is included unless explicitly excluded) and on February 18 the EU agreed for most modes of service delivery (cross-border, commercial presence, consumption abroad). However, there remain differences between Canada and the EU on how to protect investment, and on government restrictions on foreign investment in some areas. They will be exchanging offers on the latter in April, but the EU Parliament hasn’t given the EU Commission a mandate yet to negotiate investment deals with trade partners. So this could drag on, delaying the negotiations.

Procurement: The EU is pushing hard for very broad coverage of government agencies, utilities especially, which we knew already. But they’re also looking for a definition approach rather than listing specific agencies so the list of covered entities can grow over time, said Verheul. He later said Canada would seek the same flexibility as EU government agencies have under EU procurement law, although friends in the EU say there is not nearly enough flexibility to use procurement for other social goals in Europe! Local preferences and sustainable procurement will be threatened regardless.

Automotive: Canadian content in automobiles is no greater than 20 to 30 per cent, and the EU doesn’t want mostly U.S. cars coming into their market duty free, said Verheul. (Canadian automakers recently announced they want EU and South Korea free trade negotiations shelved.) There are also regulatory differences, with some higher North American standards, so Canada does not want to adopt the EU norms and risk losing access to their more important U.S. market.

Telecommunications: The chapter is virtually finished but it doesn’t touch on ownership or investment rules, which Minister Tony Clement will have to deal with domestically before they can move ahead. There is no signal from the Harper government where it wants negotiators to take this, said Verheul.

Genetically modified crops: It’s a major sticking point for Canada, though “we’re not trying to change their culture” of strong restrictions, said Verheul. They just want to “smooth out the process”.

Copyright and intellectual property: Bill C-32, new copyright legislation, is moving through the House of Commons now but the EU requests go much further. The EU and Canadian brand pharmaceutical lobbies are also putting enormous pressure on both parties to accept patent term extensions and other new protections that will keep cheaper generics off the market, increasing the cost of drug plans by about $2.8 billion according to an authoritative estimate. Again, any move would require Minister Clement to make domestic policy changes. (For someone who claimed on Twitter that DFAIT is handling CETA, Clement’s office certainly has its hands all over the most controversial parts!)

CETA and tar sands: I asked about reports of Canada pulling out of the negotiations if the Fuel Quality Directive moves ahead with a specific carbon content for tar sands higher than conventional oil. Verheul said “we’ve never threatened to pull out of the negotiations,” but that Canada is concerned the EU rule will treat tar sands differently than other types of crude. I clarified that the EU law as written would treat all oil sands, no matter where they are from, as equally polluting, but Verheul simply replied that the government would consider it discrimination to isolate tar sands. (Verheul may never have threatened the EU but internal EU documents show somebody did. This contradiction has not been cleared up and will continue to attract controversy and resentment in Europe and Canada.)

The next round of CETA talks happen in Ottawa April 11 to 15, where federal, provincial and territorial trade reps will wrestle with these and other difficult issues. To read more on the state of play of the CETA negotiations, see articles by Claude, myself and others in the latest issue of Vie Economique.

To sign the public petition against CETA, click here.