Players, absentees and spectators in the CETA ambush

Who supports the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, and why? Who might have opposed it, but hasn’t? Are there prospects for stopping it?

Persuading the average Canadian to take a closer look at the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) is an uphill challenge, partly because people are skeptical about how damaging a trade agreement can actually be. Tariffs and quotas, imports and exports – where’s the deep menace in that?

Of course, readers who have persevered through my last four articles in this series on CETA know the menace is hidden behind the rhetoric about trade. The devil is in the details, and the details are not being discussed by government.

What about the agreement offends those who most oppose CETA? Is it the deliberate inclusion of  the “most favoured nation” and “fair and equitable treatment” provisions in CETA that will allow corporate investors to use language from other treaties to ambush governments’ possible attempts to protect themselves? Is it the offshore private tribunals riddled with conflict of interest that will effectively allow corporate lawsuits against government to bypass our own judicial system? Is it the biased negotiating process that has excluded civil society groups but welcomed input from the corporate sector? Or is it that we have a government in Ottawa that has not only allowed, but enthusiastically supported, all of the above?

Who supports CETA?

From the beginning the transnational corporations have pushed for CETA. In Europe, the big players are the pharmaceutical companies, along with water and waste water service delivery corporations. The Europeans have also targeted energy delivery as a service area of interest. Indeed, according to the European Commission, “50% of the total expected gains for the EU are related to trade in services.”

In Canada, support for CETA also comes primarily from global corporations. The agribusiness sector is hoping the agreement will breach European resistance to North America’s genetically modified crops, and to cattle and beef dosed with the drug ractopamine. Our Canadian mining companies love trade agreements because they can use the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) mechanism, with its offshore tribunals, to sue countries who oppose or try to regulate their practices. Then there are our financial corporations – the banks and insurance companies. They don’t need CETA to gain access to Europe because they are already there, big time. One presumes they support CETA because they’ve allied themselves with the increasingly offshore, corporate, financial world that fuels globalization.

You have to wonder how many of our MPs and MHAs have taken the time to read the leaked documents or consult with experts who could interpret them.

So too, it seems, has our Canadian government. Did you know it was Canada, not an initially reluctant European Union, that pushed for the inclusion of the ISDS section in CETA? That our provincial and territorial governments have gone along with all this is puzzling, given the limited benefits CETA will bring them, and the increased risk of lawsuits they will face.

Also troubling, of course, is the performance of our two main federal opposition parties. The Liberals have indicated they are “broadly supportive of CETA,” while the NDP originally said they would not support any trade agreement with an ISDS mechanism but appear to have backed off from that position. According to the Globe and Mail, “the NDP’s position is now that it ‘welcomes’ the deal but is staying neutral until a final text is released in a few months.”

Prime Minister Harper must be delighted with the response of the NDP and Liberals, especially since almost all of the political debate around CETA has focused on trade issues to the exclusion of the real elephant in the room: the assault on our legislative and judicial sovereignty. You have to wonder how many of our MPs and MHAs have taken the time to read the leaked documents or consult with experts who could interpret them.

In Europe the situation is slightly different. The driving force behind CETA has been the European Commission – the bureaucrats in Brussels. The European Parliament has been much more ambivalent and uneasy, in particular about the ISDS mechanism. It remains to be seen whether they will pass CETA in the agreement’s present state.

Our disengaged intelligentsia

Disappointing and surprising is the apparent absence of analysis or public debate about CETA among academics. To be fair, the Canadian Association of University Teachers has joined the Trade Justice Network in opposing CETA’s investment rights and investor-state dispute mechanism. There are, as well, individual professors vocally opposing CETA, most notably law professors Michael Geist of the University of Ottawa and Gus Van Harten of Osgoode Hall Law School at York University. Their contributions to informed debate about CETA have been invaluable.

On the other hand, the response to CETA from within the university community has been, well, overwhemingly non-existent. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the business schools, economics and political science departments across the country. The very people you would expect and want to add their expertise to the debate either say nothing or choose to talk only about narrow trade aspects of the agreement. There seems to be reluctance on campuses to analyze concerns about the implications of the investment chapter and the ISDS mechanism.

Where do we go from here?

For groups like the Council of Canadians, the Trade Justice Network and Citizens against CETA here in Newfoundland, opposing CETA has often been a lonely and frustrating journey. The implications of the treaty are rarely analyzed or scrutinized by the corporate press. The result is that, after almost five years of negotiations, most Canadians still know almost nothing about this agreement. Consequently, if the Europeans okay CETA, this treaty will quickly become law in Canada with barely a whimper from the public. Two things could prevent this outcome:

  • Full disclosure of the CETA draft document to the public, followed by organized town hall meetings around our province so that government and citizens can discuss the treaty openly.
  •  A provincial referendum on CETA. Let the people decide if this treaty is in our best interest.

Of course this won’t happen unless ordinary people push for it. So how do people mobilize? Here are some suggestions for groups that could be started by people of all ages and backgrounds:

Teenagers against CETA: It’s your future CETA is messing with, guys. Protest it.
Grandparents against CETA: Who better to speak up for our children’s future?
Lawyers against CETA: Rise up against the ISDS mechanism and offshore courts!
Musicians against CETA: How about giving us a marching song!
Academics against CETA: Who better to analyze the real consequences of this deal!
Citizens against CETA: We exist. Consider joining us!

CETA is not a trade agreement in isolation; it’s just one tentacle of a global corporate octopus whose intent is to squeeze the power out of democratically elected governments everywhere. Other Canadian “trade” tentacles yet to be passed by our federal government include the 12-country Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement, the Canada-China Foreign Investment Partnership Agreement and a host of smaller FIPAs.

I think we have become the “unconscious civilization” that John Ralston Saul identified so eloquently in his 1995 Massey Lecture. Preoccupied with our daily trials and distractions, we cannot foresee that we are creeping towards the day when we become subjects, not citizens. We fail to notice that those who insist to us that all these trade agreements are in our best interest use ideology, not logic, slogans, not rational debate, and stealth rather than disclosure. We may be better educated than previous generations but we’re letting ourselves be outsmarted.

To use a sports analogy, it’s time to get off the couch and switch from spectator to player.


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