On August 21, the first day of the Peoples Social Forum at the University of Ottawa, a conference discussed a very current issue: the "free trade" agreement between Canada and the European Union. Six representatives of prominent civil organizations (provincial, federal and international) were heard, of which three are based in Quebec.
These spokespersons consider that these agreements do not truly seek to improve trade between countries, but instead are considered treaties that give new special rights to corporations, which undermine the democratic rights of peoples.
Trapping democracies with non-return valves
Larry Brown (National Union of Public and General Employees, NUPGE) wants the people to know that "free trade" agreements usually include what is nicknamed check valves (non-return valves) that aim to stop governments from converting a privatized service back to a public service. The agreement between Canada and the European Union is said to contain such a principle, where for example, a city council would lose its right to make water treatment a public service if it was privatized while the agreement stood. If a city council or government changes its mind concerning a privatized service, the corporation or investor can bring that authority before a special tribunal for loss of profit. Democracies do not have the right, it would seem, to turn back, unless they assume the high costs of the judicial process and the compensations to be paid to the corporations.
These agreements allow corporations and investors to sue if laws trouble or hamper their enterprises. Social movements believe that legitimate laws, to protect our environment or our health, could fall under such lawsuits. Mr. Brown named the recent example of Lone Pine: a US company that wants to extract shale gas below the Saint Laurence River and sued Quebec (using NAFTA) for applying a moratorium on fracking.
Mr. Brown notes that many such free trade agreements are being created across the world at this moment -- one between Canada and the European Union (CETA/AECG), one for the Asian and Pacific regions (TPP), and another between the USA and the European Union.
Agreements that must be kept secret till the last moment
Scott Harris (Trade Justice Network) denounces what is judged as antidemocratic processes. The negotiations do not allow any citizen participation. In fact, even federal MPs are excluded from the negotiations and are kept as far away as possible from the texts. Certain interested corporations are said to have received privileged information according to Mr.Harris.
"They have realized that the more people have access to the texts of these agreements, the more the people criticize and denounce them," analyzes Harris.
Without access to the texts, social movements make various hypothesis that cannot be confirmed. In the current case, the agreement between Canada the European Union was made available by the dissidence of an anonymous civil servant. This leak is very recent and civil organizations, in particular trade unions, are analyzing them.
While they give themselves rights..
For Alexa Conradi (Fédération des femmes du Québec), "These trade agreements are part of a globalized capitalism, and capitalism has negative impacts on women and also on marginalized people." If such agreements increase injustice between countries, especially in third world countries, women and their families are the worst hit. The context of unjust international competition creates more violence, militarization and oppression.
"I am not saying that these agreements directly cause such things, but they are part of this unjust and violent context."
Jacques Létourneau (CSN, Confederation of National [Quebec] Trade Unions) used an evocative example: "As use to say Dorval Brunelle (Centre d'études sur l'intégration et la mondialisation, UQÀM), if it was a question of increasing our importation of wine from Chili and increasing our exportation of maple syrup, there would not be an issue. But such is not the purpose of these agreements, who instead give rights to rich investors."
Mr. Létourneau adds, "I would like to see someone demonstrate that the respect of human rights has improved since these free trade deals. The deterioration of human rights for the concerned populations is rather blatant."
Jacques Létourneau reminds us that organizations that defend human rights have always demanded, since the very beginning, the primacy of human rights over agreements and treaties. Mr. Létourneau had good news: It would seem that the UN Human Rights Council seeks to give human rights a legal weight similar to that of trade deals.
In this imbalance of rights, Alexa Conradi finds interesting that the rights of nature are now enshrined in two constitutions, those of Bolivia and Ecuador.
Can the peoples win?
To that question, Scott Harris reminds us that many States have refused such deals. The Council of Canadians, a respected global justice organization, is proud that about 80 cities in Ontario have demanded to be excluded from the free trade agreement with the European Union, unless they give their explicit approval.
According to the speakers, if the anti-democratic mechanisms are exposed or presented to the public, these agreements will not pass, at least if grassroots resistance is offered.
Pierre-Yves Serinet (Réseau québécois sur l'intégration continentale) concludes that spaces must be created to allow the various peoples of Canada and Quebec to struggle together against these treaties and to create alternatives.
That same day at the Peoples Social Forum, the speech given by Naomi Klein (well known global justice author) offered an inspiring message about how humanity can prevail.
Michaël Lessard (Média reseauforum.org), August 21, 2014.
L'original en français - Translated by the author.ALSO ON HUFFPOST:
The trade pact needs the consent of Canada's provinces and EU member states to become law. So far, it's looking good on the provincial front: Quebec, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Saskatchewan's leaders have all praised the deal, and Ontario seems open to it assuming it can get compensation for some of its industries that will be harmed by the deal. Pictured: Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso shake hands following a joint media availability Friday, October 18, 2013 at the European Commission in Brussels, Belgium.
Canada will partially extend patent protection for brand-name drugs, which would delay the introduction of cheaper generics by up to two years. Officials say it will be eight years before any impact of these changes show up as higher costs for provincial drug plans. Earlier reports have suggested the cost to the health care system of extended drug patents could run between $1 billion and $3 billion annually. Jim Keon, president of the Canadian Generic Pharmaceutical Association: The EU trade deal will "delay market entry of cost-saving generic prescription medicines in Canada in the future, increasing health-care costs for provinces, employers that sponsor drug plans for their employees and Canadians who pay for their prescription medicines out-of-pocket." The federal government has suggested it will compensate provinces for higher costs as a result of the agreement.
Domestic car producers will be able to increase sales into Europe to 100,000 units from about 10,000 today under relaxed rules. The EU will phase out its 10-per-cent tariff on imports, and Canada will phase out a 6-per-cent tariff on European car imports. That could be good news for Canadian fans of European luxury cars, as those vehicles will be cheaper. But that, in turn, could be bad news for Canadian auto manufacturers. Dennis DesRosiers of DesRosiers Auto Analysts: "I don’t think anyone can definitively know what the impact of the current EU Agreement will be on the automotive sector. ... The [Canadian] industry peaked in the year 2000 and has been struggling since and, indeed, just finished one of its worse decades in history and continues to deteriorate. Was this the long term result of FTA and NAFTA? We don’t know but it could be."
Canadian beef farmers increase their quota by 50,000 tonnes, in addition to 15,000 tonnes for high-quality beef. Pork farmers will see their quota rise to 80,000 tonnes from the current 6,000. But producers will have to convert to hormone-free product for the European market, which experts say can add about 15 per cent to costs. Martin Unrau, president of the Canadian Cattlemen's Association: "The removal of long-standing barriers in this agreement, such as high tariffs, finally enables Canadian beef producers to benefit from the high value that the European beef market represents." Dairy Farmers of Ontario: "It will take income from Canadian dairy farmers and their communities and give it to the European industry."
Companies will be allowed to bid on major government procurement contracts right down to the municipal level. A joint study showed the new access will give European companies leeway to bid on federal contracts worth between $15 billion and $19 billion an year, and municipal contracts worth $112 billion a year. Critics say that, because of the common practice of "hiring Canadian" in government contracts, EU access to them could mean job losses in Canada. Trade Justice Network: "Canadian governments would lose a powerful tool for spurring job creation and economic development."
Foreign takeovers of Canadian firms now require a formal federal government review if the deal is worth $1 billion or more, but this agreement will raise that to $1.5 billion.
Labour and consumer groups fear CETA could lead to the privatization of Canada's water supply and infrastructure. According to early leaks from the negotiations, Canada did not try to protect water resources as part of the trade deal. The Council of Canadians writes: "This deal will give French companies Suez and Veolia, the two biggest private water operations in the world, access to run our water services for profit. Under a recent edict, the Harper government has tied federal funding of municipal water infrastructure construction or upgrading to privatization of water services. Private water operators charge far higher rates than public operators and cut corners when it comes to source protection."
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