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Trade Justice Network meets with EU politicians, party trade advisors

Sitting in the lobby of our Brussels hotel, I thought it would be easier to write this entry. We’ve heard so much over the past week — about how Europe works, the Commission, EU trade policy, the Canada-EU comprehensive trade deal (CETA) — that it should be just flowing out onto the page. But some of it needs chewing on a bit longer. Without a doubt, though, we (the Trade Justice Network and Council of Canadians) have made an impression. The deal is clearly more controversial in Europe than we had imagined.

On Wednesday, after meeting a newswire business journalist for coffee on Place Luxembourg, we spent the next seven hours inside the EU Parliament building, meeting with members from four of the seven political groups: the European United Left/Nordic Green Left, the Progressive Alliance of Socialists & Democrats, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats, and the Greens. We had individual meetings with members of the EU trade committee, then a roundtable of sorts in the evening organized by S&D and the Greens.

After introductions and an overview of the meeting by the Green group trade advisor, I introduced the Trade Justice Network and the purpose of our trip to Brussels. We were eight in total: Catherine Caron and Claude Vaillancourt of ATTAC-Quebec, Scott Sinclair of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Larry Brown with the National Union of Public and General Employees, and Brent Patterson, Meera Karunananthan and myself from the Council of Canadians. I explained that in Canada the CETA negotiations are increasingly controversial among civil society groups and the public, that more than two dozen groups have signed a declaration challenging the deal, and that we wanted to hear about European concerns as much as share our own.

Larry then described what some of those concerns are. CETA would include bans on local or sustainable purchasing by Canadian cities and encourage the privatization of water utilities. The extension of NAFTA Chapter 11 investor protections to the EU would further limit democratic governance. And CETA would go some way to creating a North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement by the back door — a NAFTA-EU hybrid that business groups have been dreaming about for 20 years. ‘We’ve lived under NAFTA,’ said Larry, and Europeans shouldn’t want anything to do with it.

Next, Scott explained where EU legislators and trade critics may be especially concerned about CETA. First, a Chapter 11 type investor-state dispute process would be new to the EU. Member states have signed investment protection agreements with other countries, but the European Commission is for the first time with Canada negotiating on behalf of the entire union.

Scott explained that the Commission’s internal discussions on investment — EC bureaucrats are deciding on a regional policy to replace the bilateral investment treaties signed by member states — risked broadening the definition of expropriation beyond even NAFTA’s generous version, which allows public health and environmental regulations to be challenged as regulatory expropriations of investment. The consequences of allowing Canadian firms to sue the EU for things like state bans on asbestos exports or genetically modified crop bans, would be considerable from a public health and local choice perspective.

These are precisely the areas where Canadian negotiators are looking for market access: resource exports facing non-tariff barriers in Europe. Regulatory cooperation with the EU without guarantees is not much use to hormone-treated beef exporters in Canada, which may explain the importance of an investor-state process in CETA for Canadian negotiators.

Scott also raised the negative list on services commitments being pushed by Canada. The EU typically uses a positive list in its trade deals, where covered services (environmental, business, health, engineering, water, etc) must be listed otherwise they are not affected by the deal. In Canada’s negative list approach, everything is included unless specifically exempt, which is designed to swallow as much as possible into the belly of the deal and make regulating or creating future services more difficult.

For example, if child care services were not excluded at the outset, any attempt to establish a public system in the future would require compensating the private industry players. Claude explained that in Quebec, the effect that CETA would have on public services is very controversial as the province is proud of its strong child care and other social services.

Following our presentations, we discussed these issues and others with the Brussels-based trade advisors, NGO representatives and MEPs in the room. They said that delegations from other countries the EU is negotiating trade deals with often come to parliament to express their views but there seemed to be in CETA more for Europeans to worry about at home. The intellectual property chapter would be among the strongest in the world, protecting pharmaceutical giants to the greatest extent while making generic drugs more expensive and harder to produce, while also threatening internet freedom through state enforcement of copyright locks on digital media.

One thing came through very clearly in our discussion: CETA has very little to do with trade. Put it out of your mind that this deal would enhance the Canada-EU trade trade relationship. It won’t and can’t, not without unacceptable losses to Canada. We’re dealing with a far more intrusive trans-Atlantic promise to continually apply market principles to public policy (legislation and regulation) in both regions. It’s a legislative and regulatory agreement and it will be as unpopular among the public in Europe as in Canada once its details get the attention they deserve.

Our meetings this week were a first step towards a trans-Atlantic public discussion about the CETA. The members of the European Parliament we met were convinced the European Commission was moving too far too quickly. They will be raising questions about CETA to the Commission and demanding consultation. Like us, they don’t think trade policy should be used as a Trojan Horse for domestic legislative reforms on procurement, investment, genetically modified crop regulation — or anything else.

Finally, we learned that it is early days still for CETA negotiations. There are many more hurdles than the Harper government would like Canadians to believe. It is widely acknowledged, including by our own negotiators, that Canada is in a weaker bargaining position than the EU. But there are highly controversial demands on the table that must under no circumstance be met casually or without substantial public discussion on both continents.