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Sujata Dey Headshot

Supporting Free Trade Deals Isn't Progressive

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In Sunday's Toronto Star, Robin Sears writes that progressives should "blush" about being in the same camp as right-wing populists when it comes to opposing trade deals. He says, "How is it possible that Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn are all bosom allies in opposing every trade agreement?"

It is precisely because of "progressives" such as Sears, and their wholesale support for trade agreements, that they find themselves isolated from the very electorate they wish to court.

Much has been written on how the Democratic Party abandoned their working class unionized electorate -- suffering from mass-deindustrialization due to free trade -- pushing them into the hands of Donald Trump. Similar overlaps occur between France's Parti socialiste voters, and Le Pen's Front National voters.

donald trump
U.S. President Donald Trump is seen outside the West Wing of the White House on Mar. 30, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo: Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Progressives who vow to do things differently, and then decide to push the Washington consensus on trade agreements, cause the very disillusionment exploited by the Trumps and the Le Pens of the world.

For as much as a government wishes to enact progressive policies, trade agreements -- such as the Canada-EU Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) -- curtail their abilities to redistribute income and legislate for the common interest. These deals are vectors of inequality.

Putting the word "progressive" in front of a trade deal -- without substantial changes in the way they are negotiated, enforced, and worded, may assuage the guilt of those who are strong-armed into supporting them, but doesn't actually make them so. It's just false advertising.

Sears argues that we should support a trade agreement that advances the agenda supporting equality and the environment. Agreed.

But for the last 30 years, nothing substantial has changed in how trade deals are negotiated: in secret with only business interests around the table.

Both the TPP and CETA do not have detailed commitments to environmental and labour protection, but a detailed wish lists of non-binding terms with wishy-washy language. Investor rights, though, are very much protected throughout these agreements with investor state dispute mechanisms.

free trade protest canada
Protesters hold signs during a demonstration against the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) on Feb. 15, 2017, during the vote at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France. (Photo: Patrick Hertzog/AFP/Getty Images)

These documents have very little to do with "protectionism" and tariffs, but rules favoring corporations around encouraging privatization, protecting investors' patents, allowing corporations to have more influence on the regulatory process, and weeding out public interest legislation that business considers too burdensome. They are very much political documents, about the rules of trade, and are hardly economic documents.

And as trade becomes more important, and the nation state loses its importance and ability to set rules, partly due to trade agreements, partly due to ambient corporate globalization, many on the right long for their racist-based national identities. However, this is not the solution.

The solution to corporate power is to create binding corporate obligations and to create balanced trade agreements that bring democracy in, instead of creating supranational rules to favour corporations. These deals need strong mechanisms to actually reign in inequality, and protect the environment.

And if "progressives" are unwilling to understand that people are yearning for real change on this issue, and become indistinguishable from status quo politicians, they will ensure their own irrelevancy.

Maude Barlow is the National Chairperson and Sujata Dey is the Trade Campaigner of the Council of Canadians.

This blog has been updated.

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