If I mention international treaty negotiations, chances are I’ll instantly lose half of my readers because there is nothing less sexy in Canadian politics than dry discussions about trade policy. That said, this country and its government is engaged in talks with the EU that are, in the latter’s own words, this Prime Minister’s most “historic achievement” and likely the most significant economic development since Canada signed and ratified the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) back in ’88. Gazillions of dollars could hang in the balance, but more importantly from a re-election standpoint, the biggest feather in Harper’s economic cap could well be plucked before the 2015 election if the negotiations fail to live up to the monstrous hype surrounding the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement (CETA). The way the current impasse has been handled, in contrast with the way that previous governments have, speaks volumes not just about this deal but about the democratic deficit that plagues international free-trade treaties generally in Canadian politics.
CETA is not an easy topic to blog about. It’s a prospective multi-billion dollar multilateral treaty with highly complex implications, good and bad, for commerce between the 28 member states, represented by the supra-national European Commission on the one hand, and the Canadian government, essentially represented by Trade Minister Ed Fast, DFAIT’s delegation, and, naturally, Stephen Harper. The issues raised in the course of ongoing talks that began in May of 2009 include intellectual property, supply side management schemes and even, most embarrassingly, the EU’s objection to Canada’s obsolete industrial seal hunt on the grounds of protecting “public morality.”
Canada and the European Union are preparing for a joint summit in late September that experts predict might mark the conclusion of talks and the long awaited signing ceremony that was promised by the Prime Minister over four years ago. Provided they can resolve this latest snag, a dispute over the establishment of a mechanism (similar to chapter 11 under NAFTA) that would enable parties to the treaty and companies doing business in either Canada or the EU to have recourse to a permanent arbitration tribunal known as ISDS (Investor State Dispute Settlement). The question became problematic only after the U.S. (whose own negotiations for a multilateral free trade treaty overlap with Canada’s) was rebuffed in their attempts to insert a similar mechanism in their treaty with the EU. Since then certain EU member states, Germany (the biggest economy in Europe) in particular, have expressed concerns about the liability of governments in the event that corporations take them to court to challenge them on restrictive regulations (i.e. phasing out nuclear power). The Germans are not so much concerned about Canadian corporations as they are with the notoriously litigious, ultra-aggressive American transnationals using the precedent set by CETA to demand the same from their government’s bargain with the Europeans.
Meanwhile at home, certain politicians, including NDP trade critic Don Davies have argued that the ISDS favours foreign business interests to the extent that they can resort to arbitration whose rulings would be final and binding on all parties, whereas Canadian litigants would only be able to use domestic courts to seek redress, where decisions could be appealed and are subject to a longer and more expensive judicial process. Some Canadian experts on trade law have even gone so far as to call for the treaty to be renegotiated and to remove the ISDS article altogether in order to save CETA.
Regardless of what tack the Prime Minister’s representatives choose to take, it’s safe to say that the process by which CETA has been created is one of the most opaque in Canadian history. For a study in contrasts, compare what’s happening today with Canada’s FTA debate and implementation under the Mulroney Government in 1989.
During the historic “You had an option sir” election in 1988, triggered by the blocking of legislation by the Liberal majority in the Senate that would have implemented the FTA that the Mulroney administration had signed with American President Ronald Reagan, not only did Mulroney do the honourable thing by consulting with the people in order to secure a democratic mandate for his controversial plan to integrate Canada’s economy with the U.S., inextricably and irreversibly, but he also attempted, in vain, to obtain the support of Parliament through the initial tabling of the treaty in the House. After the election, the FTA bill was promptly adopted by Parliament, but only after it had been through a series of rigorous debates in the House, Senate and, of course, a general election.
Now let’s look at how Harper and his trade Minister Eddy Fast have gone about selling (or not) free trade with Europe to the public and Parliament. There was no mention of the treaty in last election’s policy platform for the Conservative Party of Canada. No discussion in the televised debates. They haven’t even disclosed the details of the agreement to Parliament, (never mind us plebes) let alone tested the proposal with the official opposition. They may eventually table the treaty, a new policy in Canadian parliament that started in 2008, that this government pays lip service to but hardly ever puts into practice. That would at least mean that the House and Senate are given roughly a month to examine the terms of the treaty before it’s ratified. Even that’s doubtful, as it’s not a legally binding obligation and Harper has shown virtually no propensity for submitting his government’s policies to Parliament for approval ever since he gained his majority in the House.
Why is this a big part of the democratic deficit? Because it creates the perception, more true than false, that the public and their elected representatives have no control over these massive economic beasts which are largely being made by the executive and their anonymous bureaucrats behind closed doors. In turn, this feeds a growing cynicism about free trade agreements that are seen as serving elites and corporations rather than the public interest.
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