CETA on our doorstep

As the enormously controversial Canada-European Union free trade deal looms, details of the negotiations are being kept secret by the federal and provincial governments. At risk are our natural resources and livelihoods.

Last week, for the first time in four years, our premier broke the code of silence around the Canada-European Union Trade Agreement (CETA) during a speech to the St. John’s Board of Trade. In an unfortunate but typical manner, the ensuing public discussion has focused largely on personalities and motives while analysis of the content and intent of the treaty itself has fallen to the wayside. Little has been said, as well, of the inappropriate way civil society has been excluded from contributing input. This is disappointing, given the ways in which this treaty could transform our province and our country.

Traditions and policies at risk

The premier’s public disclosure of federal pressure to get rid of minimum domestic processing requirements is new. Previously, all that’s been heard from government is the official federal position: CETA will be good for us because the elimination of European tariffs will lead to greater exports of our fish products. While this may be technically true, it is a disingenuous argument. Currently, there is a sellers’ market for fish as growing world demand outpaces supply. Europe alone imports 65% of the fish it consumes. In other words, there is already a steady movement toward zero tariffs on fish. Do we need to rush into trading away domestic processing requirements to get free market access now for specific harvesters? It’s coming anyway.

What else is at risk?

According to a recent report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, trade agreements like CETA could jeopardize our current fleet separation, owner-operator and limited entry licensing policies. If this happens, we would soon see our decentralized, owner-operator system – which spends money in local communities and hires local workers adjacent to fishing grounds – disappear. In its place would be large multinational fishing fleets, centralized in a few larger harbours and vertically integrated with supply chains outside the communities. The profits from our resources would increasingly flow out of the province.

As with other aspects of CETA, decision-making powers would also shift from governments to transnational corporations, which would undermine our government’s ability to manage our resources in a sustainable way. In particular, the Investor-State clause built into the CETA treaty could make it difficult to introduce regulations to support conservation efforts. Any perceived impediment to corporate profits could lead to huge corporate lawsuits in offshore tribunals, where the needs of Canadians don’t matter and Canadian laws don’t hold weight.

Of course, it might not turn out like this. To give credit to our provincial government, they have been more diligent than most other provinces in attending to CETA negotiations. On the other hand, the province has chosen not to write into the agreement “Annex 2 Reservations” – those broad exemptions that would enable us to set future policies to deal with unforeseen circumstances. Instead, we are relying on the federal government’s protection of our right to make new policies through the reservations they have set. At first glance, to those of us who don’t easily see the opportunities for differing interpretations of legal language, these might seem strong. But how diligently will the federal government defend our position in the inevitable corporate lawsuits CETA will bring? They didn’t even bother to present a defence in the NAFTA Abitibi Bowater dispute.

One also has to wonder how committed the federal government really is to protecting our fisheries, given its recent funding cuts to science, research and regulatory capacity at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the 2012 weakening of the federal Fisheries Act in omnibus bills C-38 and C-45, and the dismantling of collaborative, co-management institutions like the Fisheries Resource Conservation Council.

Whose interests is government serving?

The 2010 CCPA study “Out of Equilibrium” suggests CETA will lead to substantial Canadian job loss and that our GDP could actually decline by between 0.56% and 3% over several years. Given this bleak economic forecast, the probability of increased litigation, and the constraints CETA will place on our collective right to make decisions in the public interest, why is our federal government pushing this treaty at us?

Because the big multinational corporations want it.

Jürgen Thumann, president of the powerful lobby group BusinessEurope, revealed that much in his comments to the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, saying the two lobby groups “will have to work hard during this period…[to] define the challenges and help the negotiators overcome them.” He continued: “We will stay pro-active to help our governments find their way through complex negotiations.”

In stark contrast to this privileged, corporate access to negotiators, government steadfastly refuses any dialogue with civil society around contentious CETA issues. This is quite the double standard.
But government’s disdain of public input is even worse than that. For example, last year trade minister Ed Fast announced at a Chamber of Commerce meeting, “[T]here is a group out there that lacks intuition, who opposes our trade initiatives because they are fundamentally, and ideologically, opposed to trade. They are Canada’s free trade deniers. Over the last year, they have not changed. They remain shrill, ill-informed and hopelessly enslaved by archaic ideology and the failed policies of the past. Today, they call for ‘fair trade’, which is their code language for ‘no trade.'”

Government’s refusal to have a CETA dialogue with the public has nothing to do with preserving the integrity of the negotiating process. That’s already been compromised by giving the corporations access to negotiations. Furthermore, former treaties like NAFTA were never negotiated under the cloud of excessive secrecy we now face. There used to be some belief in transparency in government.

Excessive secrecy has been deemed necessary, in the opinion of many, because if Newfoundlanders, Labradorians and other Canadians fully understood how much we are giving up under trade agreements like CETA, there would be outrage and fury; and, of course, no agreement.

Provincial acquiescence

Forty municipalities across the country, both large and small, have opposed CETA publicly. Yet the provinces, with the limited exception of Quebec, have given tacit support to the federal government’s strategy of secrecy by maintaining a code of silence. No discussions with citizens allowed! It’s an extraordinary situation.

But maybe that will change now that Premier Dunderdale has decided to speak out.

So let me close with two questions for her government, and all the other governing parties across the country, who have acquiesced to the secrecy behind these devious treaty negotiations for so long:

How do you justify the exclusion of civil society from discussion given the double standard and federal government’s disrespect for public opinion, evidenced throughout the negotiation period?

Secondly, if this treaty is signed in the near future, how do we go about amending the flaws? Is that even possible?

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