Opposition against Canada-Europe trade deal grows

Public debate urged

  • The Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement will prevent local governments from spending tax dollars to build local economic health in the community, says Mary McCandless of the Winnipeg chapter of the Council of Canadians. – Dylan Hewlett

As a little-discussed but wide-ranging trade deal with Europe nears completion, opponents are stepping up their campaign to warn Canadians about the range of local policy-making options their federal and provincial governments might sign away behind closed doors.

On Oct. 20, as the ninth round of negotiations on the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement wrapped up, federal international trade minister Ed Fast very briefly summarized the progress made in the talks before shifting to promoting the deal’s potential benefits.

“Another milestone has been reached in Canada-(European Union) trade negotiations, with Canadian and EU officials exchanging offers on services and investment,” he announced.

The same day, a coalition of 80 European and Canadian unions, environmental and civil society organizations issued a call on participating governments.

“We (ask) parliaments to refuse to ratify the CETA, and to act in total transparency regarding this agreement which is selling off our social rights, threatening environmental regulations and, more generally speaking, democracy itself.”

The Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) is one of the signatories to the coalition statement. Speaking on behalf of the CFS in June, University of Winnipeg student David Jacks predicted CETA would increase the involvement of private corporations in post-secondary education.

More recently, the topic came up in a tweet that escaped a media briefing Oct. 20, before journalists were informed that they could not report on what they heard. Althia Raj quoted a CETA negotiator:

“‘Health care and education is on the table to the extent that it is open for commercial activity,” the EU official was quoted as saying. “If it is public service, we respect that.”

Unfortunately, the line between what is public and private is increasingly blurred, said Jacks, quoting the Canadian Association of University Teachers.

“The distinction between private and public education services is exceedingly difficult to draw,” they said. “Canada’s universities and colleges increasingly rely on private revenues.”

Jacks added that students across Europe are rallying against a plan to standardize education across their continent. The plan includes new student fees, increased private investment and, in most cases, the removal of local governments’ ability to set tuition, funding and research policies.

CETA opponents have been calling for a public debate, and the Council of Canadians organized a letter-writing campaign.

“If CETA is signed as it stands, it will prevent local governments from spending local tax dollars to build local economic health,” said Mary McCandless of the Winnipeg chapter of the Council of Canadians.

The group expects CETA to drive up prescription drug costs, threaten farm support programs and allow foreign corporations to ignore Canadian environmental regulations.

Unlike past free trade deals, under CETA, local governments would not be allowed to favour local or environmentally responsible suppliers or those suppliers creating local jobs. Small purchases would be exempt, but the group fears restrictions would apply to about 80 per cent of the over $100 billion spent annually on provincial and municipal purchases.

“We need to use that money to keep our communities strong and vibrant,” McCandless said.

In June, Manitoba trade minister Peter Bjornson responded to the question of going public with Manitoba’s CETA offers.

“We have consulted with business and with groups that are interested in being at the table to represent their concerns and interests. We’ve accepted input from groups and we’ve accepted letters of support, letters of concern, and will continue to do so, but as far as the public being directly involved in what is put on the table, that would not be negotiating in good faith,” he said.

Published in Volume 66, Number 11 of The Uniter (November 9, 2011)

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