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VIEW: ‘Wall must skip talks on EU trade’, say Trew and Harris

Council of Canadians trade campaigner Stuart Trew and Prairies organizer Scott Harris write in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix today:

The Brad Wall government has called an election less than a week away from what could be a final round of free trade negotiations with the European Union.

Considering how the proposed agreement could fundamentally change how Saskatchewan’s economy is governed, the premier should sit this one out. A government at the end of its mandate shouldn’t be negotiating sweeping free trade deals.

Along with other provinces, Saskatchewan has a seat at the table in the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement negotiations with the EU. Over eight negotiating rounds since October 2009, the Wall government has been bargaining away provincial and municipal policy space without input from opposition parties or the public.

A ninth and apparently final round of talks is scheduled for Ottawa the week of Oct. 17-21.
In preparation, provincial officials met at least twice with the federal government in September to finalize their offers to the EU in the areas of public procurement, services and investment – all provincial jurisdictions. They would have met again this month.

Part of these offers will include promises to give EU firms unobstructed access to public contracts by specified provincial agencies, municipalities, universities, hospitals and, importantly for Saskatchewan, Crown corporations.

Saskatchewan also will have to decide whether and where to apply free trade rules to currently excluded or highly regulated service sectors, such as drinking water and sanitation, finance, education and possibly health services. But again, it’s terribly wrong that the decision is being made by a government that’s at the end of its public mandate.

We don’t know for sure what Premier Wall is putting on the table because the provincial and federal offers aren’t public. However, a leaked EU communiqué from April suggests Canada is willing to go much further toward liberalizing its economy than it has in the past, whether at the World Trade Organization or in NAFTA.

Including water, transit or health insurance, for example, would indicate willingness to increase the level of privatization in those sectors while making it difficult to expand public services. Investment rules in the proposed CETA agreement are designed to encourage competitive markets where they don’t currently exist (such as health care) and to gradually reduce the role of publicly elected bodies in how local economies are governed.

Even Saskatchewan’s foreign ownership limits on land purchases are at risk in CETA in an era where corporations and state-enterprises are grabbing up fertile land around the world for food exports back home. This has been disastrous in poor African, Asian and Latin American countries, leading to mass displacement of farming or Indigenous communities.

In Canada, the issue is who should be determining how land and water is used – democratically elected bodies or corporations? CETA’s procurement rules don’t just discourage buylocal policies at the municipal level – they ban them. Only the bottom line cost of a contract will count, and multinational bidders will have a right to hold up projects by going before trade tribunals to challenge procurement decisions.

Premier Wall will say, with some justification, that Saskatchewan already has liberalized procurement through by signing the Trade, Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement with Alberta and B.C.
Of course he did this against the expressed opposition of the public after a drawn out public consultation. TILMA’s name was changed to the New West Partnership to try to blur Wall’s deceit.
We cannot let his government sign another bad deal behind our backs.

Then there’s the question of whether CETA should include a NAFTA-like investment chapter, potentially multiplying the number of corporate lawsuits against public decisions by the provinces. The EU deal could also eliminate or discourage reviews of corporate takeovers. Had BHP Billiton been a European firm, Wall would not have been able to oppose its purchase of PotashCorp.

Trade is rarely a ballot box question provincially or federally. Not since the great debate on Canada-U.S. free trade in the late 1980s have trade agreements played a prominent role in voter preferences.

But CETA goes beyond what most of us understand as trade. It has the capacity to restrict provincial economic and social policy options in ways the next provincial government, and especially the public, may disagree with.

There’s only one option for the Wall government: It should pull out of this round of trade talks with the EU until it gets a new public mandate. It should also make its offers public and, as Saskatchewan did with respect to TILMA, hold an open public debate on whether they go too far.