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, www.tradejustice.ca. 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.

Looking for more?

Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.