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Who wins and who loses from trade agreements? People’s Summit seeks answers in trans-Atlantic dialogue

The Council of Canadians co-organized two trade workshops this weekend at the G20 People’s Summit. The first on the G20 trade agenda, with Common Frontiers and KAIROS, drew a larger than expected crowd and resulted in some good discussion on the state of play of trade among G20 countries. The workshop was to consider how G20 nations are “aggressively pursuing free trade agreements against all evidence showing they worsen poverty and ecological damage while disempowering local communities,” and to draw from trans-Atlantic experiences on how to fight unfair trade and work towards a better model. Directly following this Trans-Atlantic Dialogue, many of the workshop participants joined another in the same room on the Canada-EU trade negotiations, which was organized by the Trade Justice Network and the Good Jobs for All Coalition.

After an introduction from Rick Arnold, coordinator with Common Frontiers, John Dillon of KAIROS/Common Frontiers pointed out how trade is conspicuously absent from past G20 communiques despite how WTO and other bilateral agreements would actually contradict efforts to re-regulate the global economy. Manuel Perez-Rocha of the Institute for Policy Studies joined us by Skype to discuss the Obama trade agenda, which he says takes a u-turn from what the President promised during his election bid (see video clip).

Héctor de la Cueva of RMALC provided a fascinating bridge between the NAFTA and EU trade models, since Mexico signed the first bilateral agreement with the EU in 1999 shortly after signing into NAFTA. The Mexican experience with the US is well-known: increased poverty for farmers, inequality, migration to the US, and now worsening drug violence. With the EU, the result of a free trade agreement was a worsening of its trans-Atlantic trade balance, the privatization of public services, and the undermining of local companies in government procurement bids.

Hector suggested that there are always winners and losers with free trade but that most often the losers are workers on both sides while multinational companies can make big profits. Growth in exports from the smaller country, however, is rarely realized. In Canada’s case, even when we are the bigger economy our exports have often gone down after signing free trade deals.

Claude Vaillancourt of Attac-Quebec described the important role that Premier Jean Charest is now playing to create what he calls a North Atlantic Economic Space. Charest was pivotal in getting EU trade negotiators back to the free trade table with Canada. It’s an agenda that binds independentists and federalists in Quebec, both of which see new agreements as a way to boost Quebec’s international powers and the riches of its corporations.

Finally, Benedikte Pryneid of Attac Norway ended on a positive note with how civil society opposition to free trade with Colombia because of human rights concerns has stalled the Norwegian agreement. Norway is not a member of the European Union but occasionally signs free trade deals as part of the European Free Trade Association, as it did with Canada recently. But because it is such a small country (under 6 million people), said Benedikte, there is often much space to affect trade and economic policy.

CETA and the Threat to Good, Green Jobs

Following the G20 trade workshop, I facilitated a discussion on the CETA negotiations between Canada and the EU, which go into their fourth round in Brussels in a few weeks. Again the question of who wins and who loses was important. Clearly there would be gains for large Canadian exporters of GMOs, agricultural goods and other raw materials that currently face non-tariff restrictions in the EU. But it would be at a large cost to democratic governance in our cities and provinces in Canada. The Canadian economy would be remade on terms favourable to multinational companies and the profit-motive. Cities would face new restrictions on how they spend money, and protections for Canada’s public services and culture would be eroded.

Participating in the discussion were ATTAC members from Norway, France, Germany and Quebec, as well as folks from Quebec and Ontario interested in where the agreement is going. An important part of the debate focused on whether it was enough to oppose CETA outright or whether there is room to develop a trans-Atlantic trade agreement that would not result in job loss, unsustainable increases in trade and privatization but better food safety and environmental protections, stronger worker rights, and more beneficial cultural cooperation. There were references to the Civil Society Declaration on CETA, which puts ten conditions on any deal with the EU, as well as a new comic book on CETA from the Trade Justice Network, which will be available for download soon.

As always at these People’s Summits, a trans-Atlantic dialogue was started, or continued we should say, but by no means did it end. There’s much work to be done in this hemisphere and across the pond toward developing a more balanced, fair trading system that puts people before profits. Strides are being made in Latin America, and the potential of South-South trade as a global equalizer is important. But Canadian trade policy must change also and the more help we have from our hemispheric and European friends, some of them newer than others, the better positioned we will be.