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Last week, trade negotiators were in Ottawa to continue negotiations on a huge trade deal called CETA – the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement between Canada and the European Union.

Like other trade deals before it, CETA is being quietly negotiated behind closed doors, despite the huge impact it is going to have on public services like water, health care, energy and transit.

Maude Barlow – the National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians - and I have been working together with many other labour, health and environmental organizations to stop the deal.

Below is a piece we wrote together as the latest round of talks finished in Ottawa last week.


Negotiating Canada’s future under cover of election

By Maude Barlow and Paul Moist

Elections are a time to debate economic policy. They should never be a cover for letting unelected trade negotiators make policy for us. But that’s exactly what happened last week in Ottawa as the seventh round of Canada-EU free trade talks concluded.

We’ve come to an important moment in the Canada-European Union trade negotiations. The two sides are almost ready to put offers on the table. This is where the hard bargaining starts and major decisions are made that will bind future governments.

For the first time, provinces and territories are at the table. The commitments they make in the next several rounds of negotiations will bind provincial governments, municipalities, and local public entities such as school boards, health and social service agencies, transit systems, energy and power authorities to the terms of the deal.  No one has seen the details of what is being negotiated and as a result there has been no way to openly debate whether they will go too far, or whether the counter-offers from the EU make the sacrifices worth it.

You may be thinking, this is a trade agreement so what is there to worry about? Trade is good and more trade with the world’s largest market can be a benefit to the Canadian economy. But from what we’ve seen of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, or CETA, the deal has little to do with trade. It’s about removing or weakening social, economic and environmental regulations and programs that eat into the profits of multinational companies.

For example, the terms of deal could include promises to reduce the role of government in the delivery of public services, including health care and public water. This is the EU’s main interest in Canada. In fact, much of Europe’s social infrastructure such as transit, energy and postal services is in private hands. These firms see big bucks in Canada’s public services and are pushing for language in CETA that would smooth the way for privatization.

CETA negotiators acknowledge that the EU has asked Canada to get rid of modest protections in NAFTA for public health care, and to commit to liberalizing health insurance. The sustainability of Canadian health care is also threatened by EU demands on intellectual property. A recent report by professors at the Universities of Toronto and Calgary says CETA would increase prescription drug costs by $2.8 billion annually because under CETA patent protections for pharmaceutical companies will be extended and the wait for cheaper generic drugs will be even longer.

During an election which will choose the government that will be negotiating the renewal of the Canada Health Transfer agreements with the provinces and territories, we should also be talking about trade deals that could limit our ability to strengthen and extend public health services.

Drinking water and sanitation services are also on the table at the negotiations with proposals to restrict what our local governments can do to keep water utilities public, and even encourage the privatization of public water systems, according to a sustainability impact assessment of CETA done for the European Commission. Municipalities and First Nations communities have been asking the Harper government to help fund badly needed water upgrades for years. But Harper is clearly pursuing a private option in CETA that is rejected by most Canadians.

The Harper Conservatives claim they have wide public support for CETA. Yet many groups including Canadian farmers, municipal governments, environmental groups, health care advocates, and many others oppose it because of the potential for negative impacts on jobs, important regulations, local democracy and health care. Too much is at stake.

This deal is looking increasingly like a give-away, especially with a new official assessment showing GDP gains of under $6 billion by 2020. That’s half what Harper promised Canadians CETA would be worth.

European citizens are also increasingly skeptical about CETA. The Harper Conservatives have apparently promised to walk away from the table if a new EU fuel quality bill lists Alberta oil sands as more carbon intensive than conventional fuel (which it clearly is). Canada is also challenging Europe’s seal product import ban at the WTO, like we challenged France’s asbestos ban several years ago, proving the government will use trade agreements, including CETA, to undermine public policy.

The federal parties have made the economy a key issue during this election campaign. Canada’s trade agenda must also be up for debate. With CETA negotiations entering a critical stage, Canadians deserve a say in the scope of this “comprehensive” deal with the EU and do not deserve to come out of the election only to find our economic, social and environmental policy options have been compromised by trade negotiators.

For more information on CETA, check out this video by the Trade Justice Network.