Secret trade talks? Take to the streets! -

Secret trade talks? Take to the streets!

Peter Van Loan says negotiations with the EU are going well. Opponents are trying to mobilize.


Fred Chartrand/CP

The work of government goes on even when we’re distracted by shiny things. Two weeks ago, Parliament Hill was transfixed by the escapades of Rahim Jaffer and Helena Guergis, and I couldn’t resist writing about the former MP and his ex-minister wife either. But on the Monday of that same week, a bunch of nationalist groups gathered to ring the alarm bell as hard as they could about secret trade talks between Canada and the European Union.

Secret talks! Just like old times. Talks “based on commitments to place corporate rights before social and economic justice, democratic control, and ecological sustainability,” the groups said. (They included the Canadian Labour Congress, Canadian Auto Workers, and the Council of Canadians.) “Negotiations are progressing quickly and with little public scrutiny until now.”

Well, it was time for that to stop. The organizations leaked the entire 366-page draft negotiating text for a proposed Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement. They put the whole thing up on a website, They ornamented the text with dark warnings about how a Canada-EU deal would “go beyond NAFTA in ways that threaten public services and local democracy in Canada.”

I’ve been writing about these negotiations for three years now. But what happened two weeks ago was new, because for the first time we could peek under the hood and see the details of what’s being discussed. Advocates of a deal have become less reticent. Opponents have become more vocal. The same thing drives the new chattiness on both sides: the talks are going well.

“Progress has been ahead of schedule,” Peter Van Loan, the international trade minister, told me. “They’ve made more progress than anybody expected.” A veteran European official told me this was “the most pleasant negotiation I’ve ever been involved in.”

Barely a half-dozen of the 40 European negotiators made it through the ash clouds to Ottawa for this third round of negotiations. Everyone made do with video conferencing as best they could. A fourth round will be in Brussels in May. During the months of separation between the week-long chat sessions, each side figures out how to get closer to agreement on the outstanding issues.

Nearly 120 Canadians fly to Europe each time for the talks on that side of the ocean, startling their hosts. “They come in droves,” the European official said. The reason, of course, is that the provinces are directly involved in this negotiation, which is how a country of 35 million can send three times as many bureaucrats to a bargaining table as a union of 27 countries containing half a billion people.

The groups opposing a deal are sure all of it is awful. Take government procurement, the notion that European and Canadian firms should be able to bid for government contracts in each other’s market, on the same basis as local firms.

“Especially during economic hard times, citizens expect their governments to take best advantage of tax dollars to create jobs and business opportunities in local communities,” the opponents write. “They also want government to purchase ethically and in a manner that reduces environmental impact. All of that is at risk in the negotiations.”

The deal’s opponents go on in a similar vein. Farm support? “Supply management systems that have allowed farmers in the dairy, poultry, and egg sectors to earn a decent living are under attack.” The Canada Post monopoly? The groups accuse the Harper government of conspiring with the Europeans “to deregulate international letters and perhaps other lettermail. It looks like they are attempting to get, through the back door of Canada-E.U. treaty negotiations, what they have been unable to accomplish through democratic and parliamentary processes.”

To which I say, we can only hope. A Canada where government suppliers, farmers and letter carriers had to hustle more to hang on to their market share would be more competitive and productive—as would a Canada where each of those sectors, and many others, had a clear and fair shot at the market a half-billion Europeans represent.

You may disagree. I absolutely recommend you go over to that Trade Justice website and read up on all of this for yourself. But the thing that’s really striking about this controversy is that it’s on life support. Almost nobody is paying the trade critics any attention. We fought an entire election in 1988 about reducing tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade with the United States, and this deal, if it passes in its entirety, would provide deeper integration with a larger foreign market. Both the Trade Justice folks and the trade minister agree: this deal aims to be bigger, deeper, more ambitious than NAFTA.

When the trade bureaucrats are done talking, perhaps before the end of the year, they won’t leave a finished treaty behind them. They’ll leave a bunch of unsettled questions, the thorniest ones, and tell their political bosses in Parliament and the European Commission that it’s up to them to try to settle those questions. Arid technicalities will give way to political horse-trading. Will Harper abandon supply management, trusting that Alberta beef farmers, or Waterloo engineers, can make compensating gains in European markets that’ll be worth it?

What happened this month was that opponents of a deal tried to kick-start that political debate. And they had a hard time getting any attention at all. The European and Canadian negotiators I spoke to were in a good mood.


Secret trade talks? Take to the streets!

  1. Thanks for keeping an eye on this Paul. I am encouraged that Canadians find this pretty uncontroversial. I hope that's a sign that we've grown up since 1988, but I suspect that it's because Canadians are more sensitive to the idea of American imperialism than European.

  2. The big unions are as unrepresentative and self-serving as any of the scaaaaary corporations they vilify.

    The preach democracy and transparency, then harrass and fine any member who has the temirity to disagree with standard union line, all the while running closed shops to make sure their little fiefdoms can't be weakened.

    They preach solidarity, then the union execs collect their full salary whenever the 'brethren' are on the picket line for $50 a week.

    Scare-mongering, strong-arming, one-dimensional pressure groups that have no place in a modern free-market democracy.

  3. Abandon supply management, really ? Cut the throats of their rural base ? That would be interesting to watch.

  4. Ummm, your latter point is the point. It is really, really difficult to paint Europeans as scary and a mortal threat to our way of life. That's just never been a Canadian bugbear, the way the whole Anti-American thing is.

    That's the thing: every previous anti-trade agreement mobilization done by the left in this country has been, with respect to the propaganda, based on fear and loathing. In the case of FTA, fear and loathing of those odious Americans. In the case of NAFTA (and the current Columbian deal) fear of uber-low wage and underregulated labour markets.

    It's difficult, if not impossible, to find a similar "fear trigger" here. It doesn't mean there aren't issues to be raised and exploited, but it means that there's no way this will register viscerally with Canadians the way the opponents would like it to.

  5. In a good mood — and so am I! I really am glad this continues to progress regardless of the day-to-day Hill drama, and hope it will despite any potential elections, too.

    This would be excellent for Canada.

  6. Wells alludes to part of the problem the opponents have later on in the article: in a way, we already had this debate. Back in 1988. And I remember, it was nasty, bare knuckle, visceral, all that stuff. It was THE issue in that election campaign, overshadowing all others.

    And what happened, once we implemented FTA and NAFTA after it? Did the Canadian Way of Life disappear? Did the 49th parallel cease to physically exist, as that famous Liberal Party campaign commercial told us all it surely would? No. I think that goes a long way to explaining the seeming lack of interest. Coyne pointed this out in a very good article he wrote a few years ago — that's the problem with fear-mongering as a campaign tactic. If the apocalypse doesn't occur, it's really difficult to credibly cry wolf a second, third and fourth time, and have anyone listen to you.

  7. It is interesting how with Obama in power the left is desperately trying to argue how we are falling behind the "progressive" Americans in pursuit of "progress"

  8. I also hope the Canada-EU agreement is successfully concluded. Canada's economic well-being is dependent on trade diversification. Even though the auto workers in Ontario would have a fit, I would hope that part of the agreement would allow European-spec vehicles to be sold in Canada without modification. By removing the need for costly vehicle modifications, we could have access to more of their cool small (and sporty) cars. Volkswagen Polo anyone?

    • Technically Canada already allows things such as Euro spec headlights and windshield to be sold aftermarket which are banned in the US. Bringing them across the border not attached to your vehicle can get you into BIG trouble. As of last year we are suposed to start allowing used vehicles from Mexico of less than ten years old(which allows Euro spec to be sold) under NAFTA many of which were made Euro spec have Transport Canada has yet to establish any regulations for the import of Mexican Euro Spec cars yet, calling John Baird. Cars over ten years can be imported freely as long as they pass provincial vehicle inspection. Some provinces though like Quebec are restricting the registration of right side drive vehicles.

  9. "But the thing that's really striking about this controversy is that it's on life support. Almost nobody is paying the trade critics any attention."

    Part of it, as Orson points out, is that we already had the debate. I suspect that another large part of it is that Canadians are starting to realize that we are too dependent on the US for our economic welfare. With Obama accelerating the spending frenzy that Dubya started, the country to our immediate south is HEADING south in a big way. When it goes Boom, if we don't have a shelter then we're toast too.

  10. Will Harper abandon supply management, trusting that Alberta beef farmers, or Waterloo engineers, can make compensating gains in European markets that'll be worth it?

    Don't tease me like that unless it's actually going to happen, Paul!

    Seriously, good on you for keeping an eye on this one. But I would ofer a major edit to the sentence I quoted. CANADIAN FARMERS also stand to gain by having their sclerotic inefficient way of life shaken up. No longer able to print money by sitting (literally, for the dairy farmers) on their cash cows, they might start trying to act like nimble businesses that aim to delight their customers with increasing quality, keep costs down and expand their own markets. Those who are incapable of doing that might like to find a more productive line of work.

    • I saw several programs in the last year or 2 about industrialized pig, beef & poultry farmers controlled by the big agro business. Disgusting. This summer I will visit/purchase from farmers in my province which actually allow their cattle and other animals to actually graze (sp?) on grass instead of corn meal and their poultry and pigs to roam in enclosed areas out doors. Sure I'll pay more, but they will taste better and are not fed hormones and can at least live a normal, albeit short life. For the last several years we've noticed the taste of beef and eggs especially has greatly diminished. An ex-SIL's family has a farm in France where the poultry had free range. The eggs and chickens were delicious. To be cont'd.

  11. Your point is perfectly valid, although I hear rumblings of pretty big booms coming from across the Atlantic, as well.

  12. "I suspect that another large part of it is that Canadians are starting to realize that we are too dependent on the US for our economic welfare."

    That's a good point. And what's interesting about that is that it's a point that to some extent transcends the traditional left-right divide and the divisions between our main political parties. It's actually been a clarion call of the Canadian centre-left for some time now that we're too dependent on the Americans, too tied to them economically, etc. etc. So an initiative like this makes it really difficult to assemble the kind of wide-ranging opposition coalition to this deal like they had in 1988. In 1988, you had a spectrum from hard-core Dipper lefties, to union types, all the way over to the pin-striped John Turner, all opposed to the FTA. It's pretty difficult for the centrists in the Liberal Party, who've been advocating for years that we should diversify our trade profile, to now seemingly turn 180 degrees and oppose this.

  13. What happened this month was that opponents of a deal tried to kick-start that political debate. And they had a hard time getting any attention at all. The European and Canadian negotiators I spoke to were in a good mood.

    A lot of wonderful news in a compact little package. Yay!

  14. And it's interesting how people still cling to the tired adage of left vs right….

  15. Just in case nobody has noticed.

    The European Union may soon be either broke (from bailing out the PIIGS), or alternatively may cease to exist in the near future.

    Canada's future lies Asian trade with China, Korea, India, and the ASEAN nations, if we hope to be prosperous. America and Europe are broke. Ain't no growth there for export industries, although Canadian companies might want to start buying up America and Europe with our turbo-loonie, and use them as a source of economic rents.

  16. I wouldn't count out the European Union just yet. Too much has been energy has been invested in the EU for the powers-that-be to give up on that venture. They are a huge market, and their dwindling supply of natural resources no doubt makes a partnership with Canada look attractive. Plus, our growing knowledge-based industries and educated workforce will have even better access to Europe's advanced technology sectors (software, pharmaceuticals, etc).

    Having said that, I agree that we also need to negotiate agreements with the rapidly developing Asian nations, not to mention our Commonwealth cousins in Australia and New Zealand.

  17. What these negotiations need are busty hookers. That'll get the public's attention.

  18. India and China — trade deals with them will definitely have the "scare factor" going for them, given their comparatively low wage structures.

    • China isn't likely to agree to free trade but rather an expansive trade agreement that would use their population base as an advantage. Dito for India.
      The flip side of the coin is no one is forcing us to seek out these agreements. We would definitely have to have something to gain against the labour option.

  19. You do know that Brussels is just a short train ride from Amsterdam, right?

  20. You aren't just talking about Greece, are you….which other parts of the EU are you thinking about.

    On balance I'm looking forward to the diversification.

  21. If the EU decides it has no choice but to reward fiscal stupidity with still more borrowed money, well, would it be wrong to be thinking about ALL the other parts of the EU?

  22. Getting rid of supply management wouldn't be cutting the throats of farmers……it would be an act of mercy.

    supply management was never meant to help farmers, it was meant to handcuff them. Based on the whiners who complain about this deal, it is clear they see the jig is about to be up.

    Supply management is just a way to ensure that the ineffective and inefficient survive, and they survive on inflated prices that the rest of us have to pay.

    See the "chicken story" in toronto……When city folks decide to start raising their own food……you know there's trouble.

  23. Orsen…….having your apocolyptical predictions fall flat hasn't stopped the Liberals from trying the same tactic each year an election occurs.

    Wait till the next election…….we'll still have Liberals rolling out ads about women losing the "right to choose" or soldiers in the streets……destroyed Canadian values…etc..etc…etc…..

    wait and see.

    Oh…and the Conservatives will talk about the sponsorship scandal, and the tens of millions of dollars the Liberals stole from us. The main difference?

    The Conservatives won't be lying when they say it.

  24. ""But the thing that's really striking about this controversy is that it's on life support. Almost nobody is paying the trade critics any attention.""

    That is because the trade critics have a habit of dying off. Free trade reduced employment and profits in our relatively less competitive sectors, while enhancing it in Canada's areas of strength. Insofar as there were transitional job losses, most of those people now work in export-oriented sectors of the economy or industries that are not subject to international markets. Of course we only had the 1988 agreement because of Pearson's auto pact, which shifted the nature of Canada's auto industry (and made Ontario a major player) towards one that was more deeply integrated with the US.

  25. While I'm in favour of free trade I'm not particularly happy about the IP provisions that EU negotiators are apparently insisting on, at least according to Michael Geist. If I'm understanding correctly, the EU wants things like an extension of copyright to the life of the author plus 70 years (as opposed to the 50 we have already, which I think is ludicrous enough as is), anti-circumvention rules for "digital locks", and for broadcasters to be given a lot of new rights (which would lead to things like businesses having to pay royalties if they have the radio on).

    All of these are hugely pro-media and anti-consumer; they benefit incumbent businesses in a few sectors and screw everyone else. Its a bit of a poison pill, as far as I'm concerned.

  26. Supply management creates stability in the market. Instability in the market is a very big economic problem for farmers, who have high fixed costs. Removing supply management would be a disaster for food production in Canada. The only 'city folks' who are insistent on raising their own food are people who look up to Castrovian Cuba as source of inspiration. And people are growing food in cities in Cuba out of hunger …

  27. Keeping in mind that Pierre Trudeau, the one who put us on the road to free trade with the United States to begin with, was also in favour of diversifying our trade and engaging with Europe for exactly that reason – so we didn't become too dependent on the Yankees.

  28. Aren't the other options worse? (I'm not sure what to make of the Greece situation…looking for considered opinions.)

  29. It is an empirical fact that small business is the engine of the economy. It is also an empirical fact that there is no way on God's green earth a small business could afford comply with any of the provisions of the "bogus rule making kings of the world", the EU. Canada-EU free trade will leave Canadian small business in the same dire starights it has produced in the EU….that is destroyed. Why is it so difficult to understand that the EU is both the illegitimate child and the "bitch" of global finance and insider deals. They make the federal Libs look like choir boys. I'm sure all the empire building Canadian bureaucrats lust for similar power to dominate and destroy as their Brussels brethern…who by the way are utterly unaccountable to any democratic or legal sanction. hard to believe but actually true.

  30. Supply management is possibly keeping the costs of farming higher than necessary. Think about briefly the argument that suppliers are guaranteed demand for their products and services to farmers thereby have no reason to give competitive pricing.
    More and more "farming" has become controlled by corporate farms or producers with interests driven by their investors and owners. It's not the same level of competitiveness when the big shots buy quotas to control competition.
    The only people that fear free trade are those who can't make a go of it on a level playing field.

    • "More and more "farming" has become controlled by corporate farms …"

      Correct. This is driven by market pressures by the retail oligopoly in food for constantly lower prices. Supply management is the only thing that keep the small farmer in business. Remove it, and there will be nothing left but Cargill.

      • And that would be bad for exactly what reason? Do you expect your car to be built by the guy who runs that garage? Do you expect your house to be built by the handyman next door. There is no 'magic' in having food produced by a family farm and urban Canada's love affair with the family farm resides in a myth that actually disappeared quickly after WWII. Successful farms are run like a business and most are corporations – albeit the shareholders are family members.

        • I hope you never go hungry maureen but people like you are the reason that canadian farmers have such very little support compared to their other western world counterparts. Do you think cheap food is an accident or a result of free market? It is the direct result of the subsidies and programs given to U.S. and euro farmers. These countries pay huge amounts to their farmers to keep them producing food. The american farm subsidies are in the bilions. The american and european tax payer forks over big money so producers keep the supply of the food at the high levels it takes to keep things cheap. Canadian farmers recieve only a fraction of this support. Supply management in canada costs very little to run and delivers a very safe and secure product. Granted you will pay more in the store but would you rather pay more at tax time?
          You want a safe secure food source? Its gonna cost! And contrary to popular belief small farms are one of the most efficient ways of producing it.

  31. Though I haven't yet read the the Trade Justice site ( will do later), I know that European and American agri business is highly subsidized. I wonder if this agreement will eliminate these subsidies? If the EU does, I'd think that the French farmers will revolt big time. I'm just concerned that we're on the road to the lowest common denominator. Don't have the time right now to post URL's right now, but just check out Monsanto and how agro big business is controlling our food supply.

    Also, I'm very concerned about Cdn negotiators. In some ways we got screwed by the Americans – softwood lumber, water rights, etc. Just saying.

  32. Greece may be going to hell no matter what. German taxpayers are now feeding (and-or have borrowed against future prosperity to feed) Euros to Greece so they can pay back German banks, at least temporarily. All deadbeat Euro basket cases will now come crying to Germany asking for similar free candy. And all borderline basket cases have just learned it might be ok to keep up with their irresponsible habits, since that's what unleashes free money as a reward for bad behaviour.

    There are worse options than that?

  33. This one will get through to join FTA and NAFTA because the public is demoralized, as shown by record low voter turnout. I don't believe most Canadians get much economic advantage from these deals, and have lost some power to control the economy in the national interest. The new opportunities of liberalized trade are outweighed by the instability of the current economy, except for the cutthroat corporate types who feel at home in a casino economy.

  34. Good on you for keeping this in the national attenetion. Bad on you for encouraging this government in their back door way of eliminating regulations and rules that they can't do in front of us. Democratic free market sure sounds good when you say it fast. But this government is lacking alot when it comes to democracy and freedom. Our prime minister goes all over the world bragging about our bank regulation then sends his cronies to europe to eliminate other regulation that protects canadians economically.
    Supply managed industries in this country are easy targets to people who have never looked beyond the grocery aisle to where their food comes from. Removing them may for the short term lower your cost on your jug of milk, but if you think quaility will go up you are sadly mistaken. Look south of the border and see how the industries that mirror our supply mangement are doing. To give up sustainabilty and security for the people who produce your food will not come without its consequences.
    To quote a very famous canadian when he was refering to free market: "It's every man for himself!" the elephant yelled, as he danced among the chickens.

  35. As always, readers should be reminded that Macleans (like all Canadian magazines and publications) enjoys fairly sizeable protectionist support from the federal government.

    (And that’s not even getting into all the nasty anti-consumer IP law that is about to be shoved down the poor Canadians’ throats, as it was in America.)

    It’s easy to yell about imposing free trade on the other guy, isn’t it?