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What is Harper getting Canada into by negotiating a deeper ’economic partnership agreement’ with the European Union?

Vue Weekly | 13 May 2009

What is Harper getting Canada into by negotiating a deeper ’economic partnership agreement’ with the European Union?

Dylan Penner /

It’s the kind of statement that should have perked more ears: trade officials at the European Commission keep insisting that they cannot negotiate a new free trade agreement with Canada unless all provinces are on board. Why? What’s so special about the provinces in these negotiations compared with the bilateral agreements with Peru or Colombia? It hasn’t really come out in news reports yet, but the answers are important and will worry anyone who feels that as the economic crisis worsens it makes sense to empower our local governments-not shackle them with new constraints designed to protect the profits of investors on the other side of the Atlantic.

The current Canada-European Union free trade negotiations could fundamentally change the way the Canadian economy works and our local communities govern themselves more than any previous trade agreement, including NAFTA. Harper and his friends in Prague, which currently holds the presidency of the EU, are not just talking about making designer Italian shoes a little cheaper for Canadian consumers (though for the fashion conscious in these tough times that probably sounds pretty good). In fact, the European and Canadian investors pushing this deal have proposed a shopping list of new restrictions on the extent to which local, provincial and federal governments manage corporate activity.

Local purchasing policies at the city or provincial level, limits on private bidding for municipal infrastructure projects (including water) and supply management in the dairy and other agricultural sectors could all become illegal under a Canada-EU free trade agreement, based on the terms of a scoping paper released at the end of March. If it sounds familiar to Albertans, that’s because the Canada-EU partnership is designed on the back of the Alberta-BC Trade, Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement (TILMA).

Negotiators are bringing everything to the table, with hopes of going significantly beyond NAFTA in protecting European companies from non-tariff "barriers" to their trade and investment, or differences in municipal and provincial regulations affecting industry across the country. Like TILMA, the idea is to create a level playing field but, also like TILMA, the effect will be a harmonization of the lowest standard-a race to the bottom where deregulation serves as an incentive for more investment at the expense of environmental protections and our public health.
The "scoping exercise" was endorsed by hundreds of Canada’s and Europe’s largest corporations, including water multinationals Suez and Veolia, oil giants Royal Dutch Shell, Total S.A. and Suncor, financial players Deutsche Bank and Power Financial Corporation, mining companies Barrick Gold and Teck Cominco, and genetically modified seed producer Monsanto Canada.

And that’s it-companies back the deal while Canadians are being left in the cold. The Canadian Department of International Trade hosted a limited web consultation for other groups, but there is no evidence that this input was incorporated into the framework for negotiations with the European Union.

At the very least, Canada’s cities should be part of these negotiations as they stand to lose the most from an agreement as currently laid out in the scoping framework. But more than that, all Canadians need a say in these free trade negotiations and other bilateral agreements currently being shielded from public debate by the Harper government.

Liberalized trade was conspicuously absent from discussions at the most recent Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, and many countries which once embraced the free trade model in Latin America and elsewhere have now turned their back on it and are looking for more democratic and egalitarian solutions. A far-reaching and unprecedented agreement with Europe makes no sense for Canada given that countries around the world are increasingly recognizing that free trade is not the panacea for economic and social development its proponents claim it to be.

If the global economic crisis has taught us anything, it is that a blind reliance on unregulated or under-regulated "open markets" is a major part of the problem. Expanding and deepening these policies, this time with Europe, will not make average Canadians richer or more prosperous. It, like other free trade agreements before it, will only increase income inequality and reduce the amount of control citizens have over our economies and our communities. V

Dylan Penner is the media officer for the Council of Canadians, Canada’s largest citizens’ organization.

 source: Vue Weekly