A Canada-EU Free Trade Agreement?

It might come as some surprise to many that Canada is in the middle of free-trade talks for a large-scale free trade agreement with the European Union. Obviously, we know that these talks have not been getting the same media coverage as prior agreements. They also have not generated the type of public outrage and mass-protests that we’ve seen in the past. The reality is that negotiations have been underway for over a year at the federal government level and that only recently have we been made aware of any specifics as draft text begins to be leaked out of secretive meetings.

Last week, I had the chance to attend a discussion on the subject of the agreement, which is being called the Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA). The discussion took place at UQAM and was hosted by activists from the Council of Canadians, Trade Justice Network and ATTAC (Association pour la taxation des transactions financières et pour l’action citoyenne).

It became evident and expected that the general tone of the discussion was anti-CETA, as were the open attitudes of many of those attending, including activists, students and members of public sector unions. Why would provincial union employees want to know about CETA? The answer is that CETA is not designed only as an agreement between federal governments but goes further. Unlike previous international trade agreements like NAFTA, CETA seeks to also apply directly to Canadian provincial and municipal governments, therefore making privatization of many levels of government service is a strong possibility.

Business above all?: European Commission president Barosso and Charest in 2009 (photo Council of Canadians)

What I found particularly interesting right away was that the CETA talks were largely a creation of Canadian free-trade proponents. The Charest government, for example, was one of the main initiators of these trade talks. We might all have our own ideas as to Charest’s intentions here, but what I learned about CETA is that, as written, it will strongly facilitate corporations’ pressure to privatize public sector services.

Having now gained backing by powerful European corporate lobbying, CETA resembles NAFTA in many ways. It would contain text very similar to NAFTA’s ever-so-dreaded Chapter 11 clause, which forces our Canadian federal government to hand over our tax money to rich corporations should they successfully sue Canada in NAFTA’s international court on the basis of trade barriers. A trade barrier is now more clearly understood to be any government law that would prevent a corporation from gaining profit through the sale of a product, no matter how dangerous for humans or the environment that product may be.

Other negatives of the CETA agreement I learned include text preventing farmers from planting their own saved seeds, an end to Canadian laws preventing full foreign ownership of our telecommunications sector and complete ignorance and irrelevance of international labour standards such as those outlined in the UN’s Convention 94, which Canada and many European countries have not signed.

Despite all the negatives I have to agree with the proponents of this agreement that there are positives to free trade. Under true free trade we would have easier access to European technologies, products and services. We could use their expertise in many areas, for example in greening our economy, with many restrictions and costs removed. Europe would gain greater access to Canadian manufacturers’ products, in theory creating many jobs here.

However, Canada’s economy being largely based on natural resources, these resources play a large part in foreign countries’ interests in striking free trade agreements with Canada. We seem to be choosing here to open our clean water, oil and minerals to foreign hands.

Whether or not we’re treated like a banana republic or fellow G8 member will ultimately depend on the final agreement text negotiators create, its approval or disapproval by federal and provincial parliaments, and provincial, federal and international court cases for years to come interpreting it.

Therefore the question we should be asking ourselves is: What type of agreements are our Canadian negotiators capable of and likely to make? For clues and a look at their prior work, examining the effects of the NAFTA and WTO agreements should prove helpful.

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