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Obama’s State of the Union speech launches U.S.-EU trade talks

To boost American exports, support American jobs and level the playing field in the growing markets of Asia, we intend to complete negotiations on a Trans-Pacific Partnership. And tonight, I’m announcing that we will launch talks on a comprehensive Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union — because trade that is fair and free across the Atlantic supports millions of good-paying American jobs.

– US President Barack Obama, Feb. 12, 2013

Of everything the US president said last night in his State of the Union address, Europeans (and a few Canadian journalists) were listening closely for this short clip on trade. European leaders have been waiting at least five years for a transatlantic free trade agreement (TAFTA) they can get excited about. European Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso called it a “game changer”; British PM David Cameron praised the announcement. It’s been the dream of a U.S.-EU corporate lobby group called the Trans Atlantic Business Dialogue for even longer (nearly 20 years), backed by influential think tanks like the Brookings Institute.

In contrast, and despite four years of negotiations, the Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) was always a bit of a side-show to Europe’s near frenzied obsession with America. From the European Commission’s trade website you’d never guess Canada-EU negotiations were even happening. Canadian and European business lobby groups accepted and embraced this reality, hoping that the CETA would be a stepping stone to an EU-NAFTA free trade zone. They’re less interested in whether Canada sees any meaningful new access to the European market.

That’s because in both cases–CETA and TAFTA–the goal is not improved trade so much as an improved (read deregulated) business environment on both sides of the Atlantic. The irritants are all regulatory, technical or, heck, political (if I can use that scary word): GMOs and other food standards, chemicals management, public services, fracking bans, local preferences on procurement, etc). The bigger goal is to depoliticize governance and, most importantly, to eliminate the precautionary principle from the public lexicon.

NAFTA was incredibly successful in this respect, and Canada and the U.S. continue the deregulatory project through their Beyond the Border negotiations. What little space to govern North Americans hold onto is perpetually under siege from investor-state lawsuits against environmental and public health policies. But precaution is still important to Europeans. If they can fight off Canadian pressure on GMOs and other regulations in CETA, it’s much less certain they could do the same in the TAFTA.

And that’s if the European Commission even cares anymore. A U.S.-EU High Level Working Group document outlining the transatlantic game plan says the agreement:

should be designed to evolve over time – i.e., substantially eliminate existing barriers to trade and investment, while establishing mechanisms that enable a further deepening of economic integration, particularly with respect to the promotion of more compatible approaches to current and future regulation and standard-setting and other means of reducing non-tariff barriers to trade.

In all other respects, the TAFTA will resemble the framework that Canada and the EU proposed for the CETA negotiations. And like the Canada-EU talks, the objective is to set a 21st century global trade, investment and regulatory model that reproduces the 19th century relationship between multinational capital, workers, and the earth. If FTAs actually increased exports, as Obama suggested last night, there would be some salvation for this failed project. But trade stats showed once again this week that the deals don’t work, as the U.S. trade deficit with South Korea grew by another $3 billion post-FTA.

How will TAFTA affect CETA?

It’s impossible to know (yet) if the launch of U.S.-EU trade talks, expected in June this year, will take energy away from the CETA negotiations. I doubt it, since they are very close to finishing a Canada-EU deal and the U.S. talks won’t begin until June. But this is what people are guessing in early news articles about Obama’s new transatlantic focus.

A Wall Street Journal blog by Nirmala Menon says that after the State of the Union address, and the release of the HLWG report, “pressure has ratcheted up on Canada to quickly conclude its own deal with the EU.” The Globe and Mail is running a similarly themed article today with quotes from former Canadian trade negotiator John Weeks to back it up. And it was the question on some Tweeter’s minds last night, including @CBCTheHouse’s Evan Solomon (see picture).

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Though the EU is capable of negotiating several deals at the same time, there are CETA-specific reasons why the Canadian negotiations could move slowly. One industry source told Menon of the WSJ that the Europeans may already be prepared to offer the U.S. higher beef and pork quotas than what Canada is asking for, “within an overall quota for North America.” Better beef and pork sales to Europe being Canada’s main “ask” at this stage in the negotiations, a shared quota with U.S. producers could lessen the value of CETA to Canada’s meat exporters while also delaying the talks a bit.

The EU is apparently also looking to set what they would call higher standards for Geographical Indications (intellectual property protection for foods, like Champagne or Roquefort, named for their regional characteristics or where they are produced), and North America-based rules of origin (ex. the minimum acceptable North American vs. Canadian content in exports of food, automobiles, etc qualifying for low- or zero-tariff access to Europe.) The automotive industry is North American and the big players may want to negotiate rules of origin on a NAFTA-EU basis.

Anti-TPP meet Anti-CETA meet Anti-TAFTA (the good news)

There are conversations happening on Twitter and over listserves about how European, U.S., Canadian and other trade justice activists in Trans-Pacific Partnership countries might benefit from Obama’s new trade front with Europe. Some groups were quicker than others to make the connections. La Quadrature du Net, for example, issued a statement on February 7 denouncing what they see as “anti-democratic repression” in the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, CETA and the Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA).

“The inclusion in trade agreements of provisions that undermine fundamental freedoms and a free Internet is not acceptable and will never be legitimate,” declared Jérémie Zimmermann, spokesperson for the Europe-wide citizen advocacy group. “Copyright-related measures, including criminal sanctions, that threaten Internet and our freedoms must be debated in a democratic and transparent way, rather than negotiated in total opacity, whether in CETA, TAFTA, or in any other ‘trade agreement’. Citizens must oppose this anti-democratic trend by alerting public opinion and their elected representatives.”

These guys defeated the ACTA last summer. They’re the reason we haven’t seen a leaked copy of the CETA intellectual property chapter since February 2012.

In Canada, there’s been some temptation to leapfrog over CETA in order to attack the Trans-Pacific Partnership for all the same reasons (internet, pharmaceutical policy, extreme investor rights). Rumours of a TPP negotiating round happening in Canada some time in July have added to the excitement, and like any major gathering of world leaders there will be a call to mobilize. It’s going to be fun. But this year could also see a Canada-EU summit and now U.S.-EU negotiating rounds in the United States.

I don’t want to belabour the point, but 2013 presents North American trade activists with a common cause we haven’t seen since the Battle for Seattle in 1999. Even the players are the same–the QUAD countries of Canada, the U.S., the EU and Japan, pushing their myopic vision for global trade onto the rest of the world–only now outside the WTO, and in bi- and multi-lateral trade negotiations with names like CETA, TAFTA, TPP.

The last bit of good news? NDP leader Thomas Mulcair’s fence-sitting on CETA. It might be a crazy way to look at things but I’m predicting the NDP ambiguity is going to draw even more Canadians into the new Great Free Trade Debate. What looks like divide and conquer (TPP + CETA + Harper’s “anti-trade” rhetoric) could actually be a gift to the anti-corporate globalization movement across the continent.

Sign the Council of Canadians – Vancouver Chapter’s new petition demanding that provincial governments withdraw from the Canada-EU trade negotiations.