European trade deal threatens municipalities

Labour Council President Marc Xuereb published this column in the Waterloo Region Record today:

Walk Away from CETAThe negotiators have completed their talks. A signing ceremony is set for Sept. 26. But the Canada-Europe Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement is far from being approved.

Now is the time for Canadians to start voicing their views, because MPs will be asked to consider the agreement in the coming months.

And we should be concerned.

This Canada-European trade deal continues a trend started by the North American Free Trade Agreement of placing the goal of increased trade ahead of the right of democratic governments to manage their economies in the interests of their populations. These deals discourage governments from enacting environmental, safety, or labour regulations because they are seen as "barriers to trade."

Leaked texts reveal that the European deal will force the Canadian government to lengthen patents on pharmaceutical drugs, costing our health-care system an extra $1 billion annually. This is surely reason enough for Canada to scuttle the deal in itself.

Equally concerning is that this deal takes previous international trade agreements further by making provincial as well as municipal governments subject to its terms. This is particularly relevant given that the agreement contains investor-state dispute mechanisms which give foreign-based corporations the right to sue governments who threaten their profits with regulations.

If the Canada-Europe Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement was passed as is, municipalities would be subject to lawsuits by corporations similar to the way Canada was sued (successfully) by Ethyl Corporation in the 1990s for banning a lead additive to gasoline, or how Central American governments have been sued by Canadian mining corporations for restricting mining in certain areas.

A European food services company could sue a municipality for making the choice to support local farmers and the environment by buying only local foods for municipally owned facilities. Or should a municipality choose one day to bring its waste management services back in house rather than continuing to contract it out — as many municipalities have done — the company that currently holds the contract could use this trade deal to sue.

My point isn't that municipalities should give preference to local food producers or use its own employees to handle waste collection, though I could make those points in separate columns. It's that the Canada-Europe trade deal would greatly discourage — if not prevent — a democratically elected future municipal government from making such a decision.

These were the kinds of concerns that led the Waterloo Regional Labour Council in 2012 to ask local municipalities to pass resolutions asking to be exempted from the Canada-Europe deal.

The City of Cambridge and Wellesley Township adopted our resolution, and the Region of Waterloo and the rest of its area municipalities passed a different resolution in response to our request, essentially asking for municipalities' interests to be represented in the ongoing negotiations.

Have municipalities' interests been represented? If the litmus test is whether future municipal governments will be able to act in the interests of their residents, then the answer is no.

Have Canadians' opinions been represented in the negotiations? Again, no. A 2013 poll commissioned by the Council of Canadians showed that even among those who support more "free trade" with Europe, 63 per cent believe local governments should continue to have the right to prefer local bids on public contracts. The Canada-Europe Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement would prevent that.

As Canadians start to look at the details of this agreement — which is difficult, since there is no official version of this deal yet to analyze: we're still relying on leaked texts — the vocal opposition is growing.

Even the German government is starting to question the idea of trade deals limiting their power, after it was sued by foreign corporations for its popular decision to phase out nuclear power.

It's time to ramp up the opposition. The Canada-Europe trade deal is too dangerous to be permitted to pass.

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