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CETA: Time to admit it’s an oversold, underhanded deal

By: | December 15, 2014

The squabble between the federal and provincial governments over the $280 million MPR package is an opportunity to revisit what we’ve been asked to give up under CETA, and just what we’re getting in return.

Marilyn Reid
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Surprise! Surprise! Our premier is now suggesting the federal government has deliberately duped our province over the $280 million CETA package we were promised for giving up minimum processing requirements (MPRs).

“He can’t be trusted,” Paul Davis said following his meeting with Stephen Harper in Ottawa last Friday. “They’re moving the goal posts. They’ve moved them so far that the fund is going to be unreachable.”

MPRs are now gone. We can’t go back and renegotiate them out of CETA (Canada and the European Union’s Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement). We could, however, stand up and be the first province to say “No” to this trade agreement. Our premier has already hinted at the possibility.

Defying the vindictive Harper Government would clearly be a heroic gesture. But, even more significantly, it could also be the beginning of a domino effect among the provinces, given many are facing opposition to CETA from their own cities and towns. More than 50 municipalities across the country have disliked or distrusted CETA so much that they have asked their provinces to exempt them. Their requests, of course, were denied.

Some provincial governments might also be swayed by the mounting civil opposition to CETA.  Over the past two months more than one million Europeans have signed a petition stating that the European Union should not ratify either CETA or the TTIP (Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, with the United States).

What’s more — the sense that CETA is a very bad treaty for ordinary wage earners and small businesses is starting to trickle into public consciousness on both sides of the Atlantic.

As for Newfoundland and Labrador, anger and a feeling of betrayal about the now iffy nature of the federal fund are not sufficient reasons for our province to reject CETA. Newfoundland and Labrador should have compelling constitutional and economic reasons to take that step. In that pursuit, they might want to consider more seriously what Gus Etchegary, former CEO of Fishery Products International, meant when he said “the $280 million compensation for job loss and negative impact on the industry will be comparable to the size of a flea on the rump of an elephant.”

Etchegary, with decades of experience in the fisheries, remembers how well minimum processing requirements have worked in the past and the perspective to know that they could in the future. As for the present, if they are not working well at this particular moment in time, government has the flexibility to adjust — as it did two years ago when Ocean Choice International was granted a 15 year reprieve from MPRs at its Fortune plant.

CETA’s uncaring, unforgiving nature

That flexibility disappears with CETA, because CETA forbids us to ever use MPRs no matter how our circumstances might change.

And circumstances can change, even dramatically.

Imagine a future scenario where fish stocks are healthy and the shellfish are bountiful. Imagine also a strong demand from Europe for our resource. Then factor in something unexpected like the closure of the Alberta tar sands for economic or environmental reasons. The displacement of workers would cause a huge unemployment problem for our province. There we would be, sitting on a rich resource that is wholly ours, but unable to insist that our own workers do the processing.

Our government is complacent about this scenario because it believes our processing sector will be able to compete with European fish plants. If there was a level playing field this would probably be true, but the EU gives massive subsidies to its fisheries sector. A 2011 study reported that in 13 European countries the value of the subsidies was actually greater than the value of their fish catch.

How do we compete with that?

A benefit for all Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, or just a few?

In return for the abolition of MPRs the Europeans lowered the tariffs on shellfish. Was this as much of a sacrifice for them as losing MPRs was for us? I doubt it. This was not a clear question of our fish competing with their fish. The Europeans actually import 60 per cent of the fish they consume, and because fish stocks are declining around the world their tariffs have been steadily going down.

According to a 2013 report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, tariffs would have likely reached zero within a few years. In reality, they weren’t giving up very much at all.

On the other hand, trading away the democratic rights of future governments to act in the interest of local economies, workers and communities was an enormous concession to make. It’s all being justified by the immediate increase in export sales that will come from the elimination of tariffs on shellfish. The economic growth that will come with those increased sales is supposed to benefit Newfoundlanders and Labradorians in all sorts of ways, we’ve been told by both the provincial and federal governments: It will strengthen us.

Canadian farmers have a precautionary story to tell us about that kind of reasoning. In the 10 years following the signing of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), Canadian farm exports increased by 300 per cent. Those figures sound impressive until you learn that farm debt also increased by 300 per cent. Even more startling, the income of Mexican farmers—many of whom were already living well below the poverty line—declined  by 40 per cent.

 Trading away the democratic rights of future governments to act in the interest of local economies, workers and communities was an enormous concession to make.

NAFTA increased Canadian exports but impoverished family farmers. Meanwhile, the middlemen—the big agribusiness corporations—did extremely well. If this example teaches us anything, it is that we need to be asking where the money will go from increased shellfish exports.

Will it evenly benefit people working in the fisheries of Newfoundland and Labrador? Or is it more likely that a few people will do very well out of increased sales while the great majority will be excluded? I think I know what the farmers would say.

The Newfoundland and Labrador government has finally found out what Citizens against CETA and the Council of  Canadians have been saying in this province for a long time: You can’t trust what the federal government tells us about CETA.

They’ve wildly misrepresented the benefits of this deal from the very start, and when challenged, their strategy is to resort to even greater exaggeration. In his interview on the Fisheries Broadcast last week, federal minister Rob Moore managed to use the word “fantastic” five times to describe what a good deal CETA is for Newfoundland and Labrador.

As for the “middlemen” in our province, it’s time to insist they clarify their vague assertions.

“It is an agreement that will provide benefits and economic growth and jobs—good-paying jobs for Newfoundland and Labrador—for decades to come,” Richard Alexander, executive director with the NL Employers’ Council, said in an interview with The Telegram.

What kind of jobs, Mr. Alexander? How many? Who is going to get them? And who is going to be left out?

It’s time to finally allow a real discussion about CETA. The deal isn’t ratified yet.


Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to this or any article on TheIndependent.ca, or if you would like to address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome letters to the editor and consider each of them for publication in our Letters section. You can email yours to: justin at theindependent dot ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.

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