Done right, EU trade deal offers huge opportunities
By Peter Julian
Op-ed appeared in Embassy Newspaper "Canada's Foreign Policy Newsweekly"
When the federal government announced this year that it would negotiate a treaty agreement with the European Union, we welcomed this initiative.
In contrast to the Canada-Colombia Agreement, which is inappropriate given the appalling human rights situation in Colombia, a trade agreement with the EU offers potential for Canada to adopt some of the stronger and more progressive approaches on trade and public policy issues that the EU has achieved.
The EU has made a serious attempt to link commercial policies with a general attempt to improve the social economy. It has put labour and human rights front and center in trade agreements that it has signed with many regions and countries of the world.
The EU has higher regulatory standards, in a variety of health and environmental areas, on genetically-modified foods for example, and has been the worldwide leader in addressing issues around climate change and environmental stewardship.
Therefore, the EU provides important reference points that should help Canada craft a win-win trade agreement based on fair and responsible trade with our second largest export market.
There are, of course, several areas of concern for the NDP.
Regrettably, the NDP has a lack of confidence in the Harper government to approach the Canada-EU agreement with transparency and the best interests of Canadians in mind.
Negotiations so far have been secretive. No doubt the Harper government intends once again to have this be a closed deal and only conduct empty consultations with Parliament after the fact.
The NDP also has no confidence in the Harper government to protect Canada's best interests, as we have seen through the Softwood Lumber Agreement sell-out. Harper was more than ready to concede to American interests just for the sake of making a deal—any deal.
We have seen more of the same in the recent Canada-US agreement on procurement signed in February. Canada gave away access to all levels of sub-national government procurement without any real guarantees of access to the American market, and without a clear dispute resolution mechanism.
In exchange, Canada is getting access to less than two per cent of the stimulus money committed under the American Recovery Act. That is a mere $4 billion to $5 billion, while Canada's sub-national procurement market is worth $25 billion a year.
The recent Canada-US agreement on procurement is creating a precedent which has reinforced EU demands for complete access to provincial and territorial procurement, and which would further diminish the capacity of sub-national governments to support the creation of local job and community development.
There is greater mileage in investing Canadian taxpayers' money in domestic job creation and community development rather than funding the profits of foreign shareholders. Governments in Canada should be allowed to maintain and enhance a Canadian content to procurement and give preference to companies that invest, create and maintain good jobs in Canada.
I am also concerned by the demands of the European Union with respect to the treatment of intellectual property rights.
The successful economies of the 21st century will be built on digital foundations and innovative research whose key business principles will be openness and collaboration. It is vital that Canadian copyright and patent law maintain and improve a regime that does not frustrate such innovation by further fencing in of information.
Unfortunately, EU demands for copyright term extensions, protection for digital locks and stronger patent protection of pharmaceutical drugs negate these vital needs and objectives.
The free flow of information is vital to the future success of Canada's economy, and conceding to an EU copyright law compromises Canada's interests.
As well, I am concerned about the possible impact of the direction taken by the Harper government on the Canada-EU Trade agreement on supply management, on our family farm, and on the survival of rural Canada.
In contrast to the important progressive lessons that the EU has put into place, our trade negotiators are once again using an obsolete and harmful NAFTA template. This does not come as a surprise given that, for almost a generation now, successive federal governments have all been characterized by a lack of a clear vision of where the Canadian economy and the Canadian people should be in 10 or 20 years.
In short, Canadian negotiators should reach toward the economy of the future, not protect the big business interests of the past in the ongoing Canada-EU negotiations. Most importantly, the federal government should be able to anticipate and provide the required benchmarks on how to judge the success or failure of a trade agreement.
Regrettably, successive federal governments have failed to provide such assessment of previously ratified comprehensive trade agreements, either on economic or on governance grounds. Moreover, there has also been a systematic failure to provide social and employment impacts, as well as assess the distributive effects of trade agreements before ratification.
In short, the promise that is contained in the principle of negotiating trade with the far more progressive EU provides an opportunity to raise a wide variety of environmental, social, labour and human rights standards in Canada and these principles must be allowed to dominate these negotiations.
It is regrettable that it seems to have been pushed aside for a NAFTA-style agreement that would decrease most Canadian incomes, encourage lower standards and lead to the loss of democratic sovereignty. Most Canadians are earning lower incomes since the Canada-US free trade agreement was implemented.
There is still time to turn this around, but the Harper government must go where it has never gone before and establish a much broader, stronger democratic, consensus-based approach to a fair trade agreement.
A fair trade agreement with Europe should fulfil the following requirements: it must promote human rights, be a win-win on jobs, raise Canadian standard of living, respect the environment and preserve Canada's ability to legislate in areas vital to its interests. In short we need to push the Canada-EU negotiations towards a much more progressive fair trade model.
Peter Julian is MP for Burnaby-New Westminster and the NDP critic on international trade.