07/12/2012 03:26 EDT | Updated 09/11/2012 05:12 EDT

CETA: Quebec's Negotiator In Trade Talks With Europe Says Provinces Know Exactly What They're Doing


Canada's provinces are no fools and know exactly what they are doing at the negotiating table, Quebec’s lead negotiator in the free trade talks with the European Union shot back Wednesday.

Pierre Marc Johnson made the comments after an extremely critical legal opinion suggested the provinces are ill-equipped to handle the important file and are selling out residents.

CETA, the Comprehensive and Economic Trade Agreement with the EU, is an over-arching trade deal that will apply to sub-national governments for the first time. That means international firms will be allowed to bid on municipal contracts, something that has many local governments worried they won’t be able to enact 'buy local' policies.

Lawyer Steven Shrybman studied leaked text of what Canada and the EU placed on the table and found that while the Europeans asked for blanket exceptions to protect public utilities, Canadian provinces did not do the same in areas over which they have jurisdiction.

Shrybman told The Huffington Post Canada the provinces hadn’t done their homework and looked as if they didn’t fully understand the scope of the agreement.

Contrary to what others are saying, Quebec and the other provinces “know exactly what they are doing” during these Canada-European free trade negotiations, negotiator Johnson said to Quebec's Le Devoir.

Quebec is not being had by more skillful negotiators and is not about to forfeit its ability to maintain control over public services, he said.

“This analysis is based on incomplete texts that were leaked a long time ago. These are texts to which a number of changes have been brought,” Johnson told Le Devoir. “Without letting you know what is in the agreement, do you think, for example, that as Quebec is rapidly developing its energy sector that cabinet would let me negotiate an agreement that would prevent it from intervening?”

Johnson told the newspaper that Quebec intends to seek exemptions from CETA for several sectors, including health, education and social services, and for state-owned enterprises such as Hydro-Quebec and the Société des alcools du Québec, the province's liquor board. Certain concessions will be necessary, he cautioned, if Quebec wants access to “the richest unique market in the world."

“This image of poor little incompetent provinces who are about to sell out our competences is very, very far from reality,” Johnson said. “The provinces know exactly what they are doing, they have a higher level of expertise than the federal government in their areas of jurisdiction.”

Shrybman studied two leaked texted circulated in the early part of 2012.

Part of the problem says CUPE, the Canadian Union of Public Employee which asked Shrybman to prepare the legal brief, is that Canadians are being kept in the dark about the negotiations. While some industry and advocacy groups are being briefed, few details about what the federal and provincial governments are prepared to trade away have been released to those affected by the decisions.

Many municipal councillors told HuffPost they were frustrated by being shut out of the process and felt their interests were not being defended adequately.

“The problem is that none of us know exactly what is being discussed. The province and even the Minister Ed Fast have been very kind to come forward and talk about generalities ... but none of them have talked about the details,” said Burnaby, B.C., councillor Sav Dhaliwal.

“I would like to see the draft agreement that is being proposed so that municipalities and local government’s across Canada could take a look at it and give their endorsement or proposed changes to it. I believe the opportunity isn’t going to be there. In my view that is essential for us before we can really say yes,” he added.

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