The big bamboozle: CETA and gambling with Canada's economic future

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How smart does Stephen Harper look at a Brussels press conference to announce a trade deal with Europe, when the prime minister called José Manuel Barroso, the President of the European Commission, Juan Manuel Barroso?

It was last week, just as parliamentarians were summoned to hear the Governor General recapitulate the Harper government's agenda on crime, military spending, commercialization of science, etc. (plus a new list of consumer-friendly items lifted from the NDP) that the prime minister tweeted the long-awaited EU deal was imminent, and then left for Brussels the next day.

The throne speech was such an uncomfortable event for the Harper Conservatives, the PM decided to point attention elsewhere. Of course the GG speaks in the Senate, the last place Conservatives want to be found, what with accumulated Senator spending scandals spelling grief. Indeed, in the most previous session, the Official Opposition had grilled the prime minister to the point where he prorogued parliament to escape the heat.

NDP leader Tom Mulcair is ready to pounce. The prime minister has misled the House of Commons over his involvement in the payment of money by the PMO Principal Secretary to Senator Mike Duffy. The issue shows no sign of dying down.

If the throne speech could not force scandal off the agenda, why not announce the "biggest, most ambitious trade deal Canada has ever reached" more important than NAFTA even, and put the opposition on the defensive on the economy, the issue Harper needs to own, if he is to survive the next election?

On Monday, his first day back in the House, Harper answered questions about the scandals surrounding his government by referring to CETA.

This big bamboozle move comes directly from the Brian Mulroney playbook. In 1988 Mulroney announced a yet-to-be-finalized trade agreement with the U.S., promising the moon at least to every Canadian.

The Progressive Conservative campaign divided the two opposition parties, and allowed an increasingly unpopular PM to come up the middle, with a big win in Ontario garnering his party a majority in parliament in the 1988 election.

The Mulroney-Reagan accord (not to be forgotten, it was Reagan who had the idea first) was implemented, though in 1988 more Canadians voted for parties against the trade deal, than voted for parties supporting the trade deal Pierre Trudeau referred to as "that monstrous swindle."

Democracy lost, and so, eventually did the Conservatives, who were reduced to two seats in the following election, once disillusion set in about what Mulroney was doing to Canada. As Tom Walkom reminded readers of the Star, economic sectors simply disappeared from Canadian manufacturing after the Canada-U.S. deal had done its work re-structuring North America.

Promoting the big bamboozle means Harper is gambling with Canada's economic future. The PM is touting a deal not yet finished. Making himself its chief sales agent encourages the Europeans to get tough in negotiating the hard parts to come, knowing Harper has overplayed his hand, just like Mulroney did before Canada signed a bad deal in 1988.

Harper has made himself politically vulnerable by his penchant for secrecy and conspiracy against potential adversaries. The draft CETA accord is unknown to cabinet, let alone parliament, and every aspect of the negotiation has been kept hidden from Canadians, including provincial leaders, who are as much in the dark as anyone else.

Harper came back from Brussels with an interim trade agreement, what the Europeans called a "political" understanding.

Following four years of secret negotiations not one page of official text has been released. Unlike with the Canada-U.S. negotiation, no serious public consultations have been undertaken by parliamentary committees. The Conservatives must believe the more the public learns about commercial accords, the less they will find to like, which was what happened with the Canada-U.S. talks.

The Canada-EU deal or CETA requires the approval of 28 European parliaments. Canadian provincial governments need to approve those elements which touch upon provincial jurisdiction.

The operative Canadian principle is that the federal government can negotiate international treaties, but only the provinces can implement agreements that fall under provincial authority (Article 92 of the Canadian Constitution).

Health ministers and finance ministers are going to want answers about measures like additional patent protection the EU expects for prescription drugs, which could cost Canadians about $2.8 billion each year, according to Canadian generic drug manufacturers.

Harper needs a win with the EU deal to save his political skin, which is why he is announcing it. There is no evidence Canadians need CETA. In order to trade with Europe, Canada needs products produced by companies, not a trade deal that restricts policy options.

There is no doubt corporations want the deal. It is all about corporate protectionism and enhancing ownership rights, increasing intellectual property rights, entrenching corporate right to sue governments and protect themselves from regulations that protect the environment or the health of the financial system.

After the war, Canada found benefits in multilateral trade. The EU-Canada deal undermines efforts to reform the WTO, which would make it more responsive to poor countries.

For the EU, Canada is more of a guinea pig than a trading partner. The real big deal is the emerging U.S.-EU transatlantic pact. Europeans see CETA is a test run for an eventual U.S.-EU pact. The Americans want a deal modelled on the Security and Prosperity agenda pushed by the U.S. in North America.

Under George W. Bush, a Transatlantic Economic Council was created in 2007 as first step; talks to forge the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) began in July 2013.

Two aging geopolitical strategists, first, Republican Henry Kissinger, and now Democrat Zbigniew Brzezinski have been calling for a transatlantic alliance in order to meet Chinese ambitions. Like the old containment policy aimed at the former Soviet Union, the China containment policy features absurd U.S. military spending levels, and enhanced corporate control of the economic direction, whatever the negative impact on the social fabric, the environment, or especially, of the economy itself in the U.S., the Atlantic region, and elsewhere in the world.

The European project has been about building an alternative to U.S. domination of the old continent. Those Europeans unhappy about the Bush-Obama strategic alliance against China, may well choose to block the Canadian CETA as a way of foreshadowing opposition to the U.S.-EU project.

The failure to understand European politics goes beyond not getting a name right. Canadian diplomats could have explained the complexity of getting 28 European parliaments to go along with something negotiated by the European Commission, but Prime Minister Harper takes his advice elsewhere, from Republicans in Washington mostly.

Duncan Cameron is the president of rabble.ca and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

Photo: pmwebphotos/flickr

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