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CETA Announcement Shows It's Possible To Fix Trade Deals

03/02/2016 12:06 EST | Updated 03/03/2017 05:12 EST
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

After some rather minor tinkering with one part of the CETA free trade deal with Europe, our new Liberal government is now saying the deal could be signed, ratified and in force by 2017.

Not so fast.

There is still much to be concerned with here. But we can still fix what's wrong, and not just with CETA. The announcement Monday proves that.

By announcing changes Monday to what we had been told was a done deal, Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland has acknowledge that a trade agreement can, in fact, be modified in the face of massive public opposition and mobilization.

When the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, or CETA, was announced in October 2013 by the former Harper government, its investor-state dispute settlement mechanism (ISDS) soon became a political hot potato for the governments of Europe. Their citizens said the ability of corporations to sue government for hurting their profits would damage their democracies and prevent governments from passing the laws their people want.

That set off a round of talks to review the ISDS provision, resulting in the deal we saw announced this past week. During the process, government officials tied themselves in knots trying to convince the public that this was all part of a standard legal scrub of the CETA trade text, when in fact it amounted to backroom re-negotiation.

The notion that a "signed deal" isn't really a "done deal" casts a negative light on the credibility of trade negotiations, most of which are conducted in secret.

None of the ISDS reforms really change much in the deal. Corporations can still sue governments over public policy decisions they don't like. Worse, none of the changes announced touch on many other concerns with the deal itself -- including the right of governments to direct procurement purchases toward Canadian companies (to ensure government spending helps Canadians as much as possible), threats to supply management and phantom advances in auto exports.

Increasingly, the public is becoming uneasy with the power trade deals give to corporations to decide the kinds of policies their countries can pursue.

In auto, CETA contains provisions that Canada can export more cars to Europe. Which sounds good, except we already have a large auto trade deficit with Europe of more than $5.3 billion -- they sell $5.6 billion worth of cars into Canada, while we export only $269 million. That's because the cars Europe makes are attractive to Canadians -- luxury brands such as BMW, Mercedes and Audi -- while Canada makes great vehicles that are not geared to the European market.

CETA won't change that.

The real lesson from Monday's announcement, in fact, is that public opposition and political mobilization can change things. The idea that trade deals should give more rights to privileged private investors is actually on more unstable ground than free trade advocates like to admit.

Increasingly, the public is becoming uneasy with the power trade deals give to corporations to decide the kinds of policies their countries can pursue. In Europe, with CETA, the Europeans found themselves in the midst of a major political backlash thanks to ISDS. Because of that, after a little more than two years, the deal was tweaked.

That's good. That shows that with enough political and public opposition, we can fix what's wrong with a deal.

And not just with CETA. There are similar ISDS concerns with Canada's deal with China, and with the Trans Pacific Partnership, which Freeland signed recently and intends to bring before Parliament for ratification.

Again, let's not rush into anything. In light of the changes announced Monday, we need to question why Canada would agree to a strong investor state dispute system in one deal, the TPP, but not in another deal, CETA. And, how can Freeland say there's no more room to negotiate in TPP, when we just renegotiated a done deal in CETA?

On Monday, Freeland proved that we can, in fact, fix a problematic trade deal. All that's needed is sufficient public and political opposition, and a mobilized effort to push for changes.

Like CETA, opposition is growing to the TPP, a trade deal that threatens 20,000 good jobs in the auto sector alone. The deal has virtually no support among any of the main contenders to become the next U.S. president, a reflection of the unease with the deal among the American electorate.

That looks like an opportunity. If we can change CETA, we can change the TPP.

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