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CETA: Canada's Rocky Road To The European Parliament

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As a former Toronto resident, I used to enjoy any mention of Canada at the European Parliament where I work. It was refreshing, rare. Now CETA, the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, has everyone talking about Canada in Brussels, the EU capital, ahead of February 15's vote -- and it's not always good. So, here is a tip for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ahead of his Thursday speech at the European Parliament (he will be the first Canadian prime minister to do so). 

The 751 elected members of the European Parliament represent voices as diametrically different as those of Greece's far left and the U.K.'s far right. The conversation, however, has been particularly divisive among Europe's left -- intense campaigns against CETA have influenced millions of voters, and that may leave both Canada and the EU at an impasse. It is hence by understanding and addressing the concerns of the left that the Canadian prime minister may successfully bring an agreement.

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looks on during a news conference after the signing of the CETA at the European Council in Brussels, Belgium, Oct. 30, 2016. (Photo: Eric Vidal/Reuters)

Canada is being held hostage in one of Europe's deepest political crisis. The rise of anti-establishment parties has forced our politicians to adopt an ever more populist rhetoric, for fear of losing popular support. For example, France's centre-left government officially supports CETA, while most of the party's elected representatives will vote against it on February 15 because the far-left's campaign against CETA has won the hearts of many left-leaning voters.

Canadians also face the increasingly nationalistic rhetoric of some European leaders; most seem to struggle to explain the benefits of the European Union, let alone CETA. That is why the U.K.'s Labour Party, overwhelmed by the abysmal descent into Brexit, has decided to give up its EU membership rather than find the political and moral courage to engage with voters. CETA is essentially an "international compromise," two words that raise the suspicions of a disenchanted public in the era of Trump and Brexit.

Meanwhile, Putin has waged an information war on CETA to further weaken the EU. Russia Today (RT) and its many online affiliates have offered unlimited coverage to anti-CETA campaigners, especially in Angela Merkel's Germany. A majority of Europe's online campaign against CETA actually come from this country, where far-left anti-trade organisations have prospered.

european parliament brussels
European Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. (Photo: Ina Kiantonana via Getty Images)

Yet beyond anti-establishment and nationalist rhetoric, CETA's great obstacle is the controversial setting of a supranational Investors Court System (ICS). Critics claim the ICS to be a private and secret court in which multinationals will win lawsuits against our states to privatize public services and erode our social and environmental rights. A careful study of CETA will reveal these claims to be unfounded.

Rather, Canada and the EU agreed to retake control of the ICS by entirely redrafting it in February 2016. Only our governments will fund and appoint the 15 judges that will deal with investors' claims in public proceedings. There will also be a strict code of ethics and a new court of appeal. Despite these improvements, it seems nothing short of its complete removal would adequately tackle the public's concern.

As if these challenges were not enough, Europe's powerful Greens have been campaigning vehemently against CETA with an environmental focus. Canada's stance on environmental protection remains tainted by Stephen Harper's legacy, which included removing Canada from the Kyoto Protocol, promoting the use of tar sands and unsustainable mining practices around our planet. The Greens have asked more time be given to vote on CETA, as some NGOs have claimed the EU-Canada deal will allow fracking, tar sands, shale gas, hormone beef or chlorine chicken into Europe. Canada's shaky reputation in this field has helped campaigners spread those fears, however unfounded.

CETA is an agreement to reduce the costs of EU-Canada trading, not to weaken our democracy.

Finally and with my most sincere apologies to Canadian readers: European citizens and politicians interchange Canada and the U.S., confusing CETA with TTIP, its U.S. equivalent. Sadly, my constituents have never heard of Canada's pride for its free universal health care or its inclusive education system, values held dear in Europe, too. Conflating Canada with America's highly capitalistic society, which the European left rejects, has brought about horror scenarios of mass privatizations -- even the end of democracy, a rise in tobacco and alcohol consumption and higher rates of cancer, to use a few of the allegations I have read from anti-CETA statements.

Determined as they are, Canada and the EU provided evidence again, in a binding declaration in October, that CETA would neither prevent regaining control of a privatized public service, nor would it prevent regulating in the public interest (for example, by banning tar sands). Our parliaments will still fully legislate on workers' rights, public health measures or the rights of states to expropriate investors based on environmental concerns. CETA is an agreement to reduce the costs of EU-Canada trading, not to weaken our democracy.

Still, many Europeans are skeptical. While CETA is expected to pass with a clear majority in the European Parliament on February 15, it remains unclear whether all national parliaments will ratify it. Truth be told, their approval is mandatory before CETA's full implementation. So my best advice to Justin Trudeau might just be for him to hold his breath a little longer -- it's still a wide ocean between us.

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