Skip to content

VIEW: Canada-EU Trade Talks Are Putting Public Water at Risk, say Trew and Cameron

Council of Canadians trade campaigner Stuart Trew and CUPE researcher Kelti Cameron write in the Epoch Times that:

Water is a fundamental human right and an essential public service. So it is sad—and scary—to see the federal and some provincial governments looking for ways to privatize Canada’s already troubled public water systems through trade negotiations with the European Union.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees and the Council of Canadians are following the Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) negotiations with great concern. Leaked drafts of the agreement and briefings with Canadian negotiators confirm that water is on the table in a way we have not seen in past trade deals.

At stake is the very right of municipalities and First Nations to maintain public ownership and control of water.

In a report released this month, CUPE and COC describe how proposed commitments in CETA related to services, investment, and procurement will unfairly constrain how local governments manage the delivery of essential services, including public water. We explain that the CETA negotiations are happening in the context of an infrastructure crisis that should be solved with public financing and public solutions. The goal of CETA is clearly to facilitate and encourage the transfer of public water utilities into private hands.

For example, the provinces and territories are being asked to permanently include Canadian municipalities and their utilities in a procurement chapter that severely restricts how public money is spent. Local preferences—buy-local conditions, fair wage policies, set-asides for Aboriginal companies or social enterprises—will be banned under CETA. Furthermore, EU firms will be able to challenge bids they lose to public “competitors” in front of trade panels with the power to hand out fines or even to overturn decisions.

Including drinking and wastewater services in CETA’s services and investment chapter would further undermine democratic accountability. The goal of services chapters in multi- and bi-lateral trade agreements is to reduce the level of government involvement in committed sectors. The ability to regulate becomes severely compromised. Limits on the type, quantity and size of investment by private water firms are banned. An investor-to-state dispute process in CETA, as proposed by Canada, would let these companies sue governments in the event new regulations interfered with their profits.

For all these reasons, attempts to include water services within the General Agreement on Trade in Services at the WTO have failed time and again. Developing countries in particular understand that the goal of services agreements is to encourage more privatization of public services, including water. In the case of CETA, the spoils will go to large EU multinationals such as the France-based Veolia Environment and Suez, both of which have a growing Canadian presence in the delivery of public transit, energy and water services.

The majority of our water and sanitation services in Canada are publicly owned, operated and delivered. Water and other essential services such as health care, public transit, postal services and energy act as important inputs into all economic activities, which reinforces the need for their delivery to be accountable to the public. Our public services provide stability and ensure a decent quality of life for all Canadians.

But Canada’s public water systems are suffering from neglect. Municipal governments estimate they will need over $30 billion to upgrade aging drinking and wastewater systems. New sanitation standards proposed by the Harper government will add as much as $20 billion to that number. The water situation in First Nations communities remains catastrophic. Yet public financing for public water remains elusive.

Instead, the current federal and some provincial governments are encouraging municipalities to look to the private sector. Existing government programs, including the Building Canada Plan, and funding initiatives under Public Private Partnerships Canada (PPP Canada Inc.), encourage privatization as a condition of receiving federal money for municipal infrastructure projects. In 2006, Whistler had to spend over $1 million in legal fees before giving in to public pressure to maintain a public water system.

International experiments with the privatization of water and sanitation services have been a disaster. Rate hikes and cut-offs to lower income households are not uncommon, as are poor environmental practices, and lack of transparency and public accountability. While EU- and US-based water firms have made global inroads in private water delivery and treatment, the growing trend in Europe, the U.S., and Latin America is remunicipalization—the bringing back into public hands of failed privatizations.

CETA would be taking Canada down a well trodden but ultimately rejected path. There are no economic or social gains from agreeing to the EU requests on water services and procurement. There are only unnecessary and costly risks to Canada’s municipalities and First Nations.

As we conclude in our report, provincial, territorial, and municipal governments must take immediate action to protect Canada’s public municipal and First Nations water systems from decay. As one of the wealthiest countries in the world, solving the infrastructure crisis is a matter of political will, not adequate funding.

We must also protect public water from pro-privatization trade agreements such as CETA. Government procurement and trade-in-services commitments related to water must be rejected entirely, along with the right of corporations to sue governments over perceived regulatory impediments to their profits.

On a more general note, it’s time our provincial, territorial and federal governments came into the open on the CETA negotiations. A trade agreement with the capacity to constrain domestic policymaking in the ways we have just mentioned demands public scrutiny and debate. With only weeks until a sixth round of CETA negotiations in Brussels, we urge the provinces and territories to put a stop to trade talks with the EU while that debate can happen.

Their op-ed can also be read at http://www.theepochtimes.com/n2/content/view/47955/.