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Provinces accused of neglect, Harper of propagandizing in Canada-EU trade talks

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They say all news is good news but this week's back-to-back negative press on Harper's NAFTA-plus free trade deal with the European Union surely breaks that rule.

On Sunday, the Harper government and European Commission were accused of using their Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) to ratify the unpopular Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) through the back door. European Internet activists have lit up the web with indignation, vowing to make sure nothing of the sort happens. The Commission, which initially would not comment on the leaked CETA intellectual property chapter, decided to respond that several articles in CETA that were taken from ACTA have been removed since February.

Geist writes today that, "While the removal of the Internet provider provisions is a good step, the European Parliament's overwhelming rejection of ACTA was the result of far more than just the Internet provider provisions. Indeed, there has been concern about digital locks, damages, criminal provisions, and border measures. All of those provisions also appeared in the February 2012 CETA draft and Clancy's response suggest that most, if not all, remain there."

HARPER SPOOKED BY MUNICIPAL OPPOSITION TO CETA

Not a good start to the week, what with another (12th? 13th? 14th?) CETA negotiating round in Brussels starting July 16. But it got worse.

On Monday, Postmedia reported that Harper's frantic 18-city CETA promotional tour in April was in response to "mounting backlash from municipalities about a pending Canada-EU free-trade deal." According to internal documents obtained by the news agency, "the Conservative government was worried specifically about a growing list of communities--which now includes major cities like Toronto, Hamilton and Victoria--seeking exemptions from the proposed trade pact due to concerns over a loss of autonomy in local decision-making."

To get a sense of the extent of the municipal backlash against CETA, see this interactive map of cities, school boards and associations that have passed motions calling for more information, more municipal engagement, or a complete exemption, specifically from the proposed agreement's unreasonable procurement rules. Council of Canadians chapters, as well as members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Canadian Autoworkers union, National Farmers Union, local district labour councils and other groups have done a public service by explaining to their local councillors where CETA fails cities, and how Harper's attempts to convince them otherwise miss the mark.

The documents acquired by Postmedia news say the government hoped to "generate widespread support for the ongoing Canada-EU trade negotiations" by fanning out across the country and holding press conferences, some of them inside companies that may or may not find ways to profit from CETA. The goal was to "counter negative rhetoric... by creating more real awareness of the issues and benefits at stake."

The article quotes Trade Minister Ed Fast as saying in April that, "There is no better job creator and economic growth generator than free and open trade." Liberal trade critic Wayne Easter proposes instead that CETA is a "national agreement that's taking an extreme amount of sovereignty and decision-making away from the local level," and that the Harper government is just "trying to get ahead of it on the messaging side."

We said about the same in April.

"Speaking at Canadians isn't the same as speaking with them," Ted Woynillowicz, Calgary organizer with the Council of Canadians, told media regarding Harper's whirlwind CETA tour on April 27. "If the Harper government really wanted to meet with workers, he would have picked a more convenient time than 9 or 10 a.m. on a Friday. We dare these ministers to come back to the province to actually meet with the public and take tough questions about CETA. We'd be pleased to volunteer to organize town halls."

The government talking points that the Postmedia article refers to sound much like the propaganda the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade included in a new CETA webpage this April. The new section quotes business lobby groups on how transparent the negotiations have been and what a boon CETA will be for industry. One fact sheet tries to debunk what the government insists are myths being spread about the deal. Another repeats economic predictions even its supporters think are suspect. (The Council of Canadians will release a report shortly which attacks the government's misleading, and in some cases clearly false, statements.)

PROVINCES "SELLING US OUT" IN CETA: LAWYER

The next bit of bad news came on Tuesday when the Canadian Union of Public Employees released a new legal opinion by Steven Shrybman, which is based on the leaked Canadian and EU CETA offers relating to investment.

According to a Huffington Post article, "Shrybman studied the list of items Canada sought to exempt from international competition [and] found that while the European Union had asked for blanket exemptions to protect many public utilities in various sectors, most provinces and the territories have not done the same."

Paul Moist, national president of CUPE, said in a press release, "We're sharing this opinion with the premiers as a wake-up call. The federal Conservatives are negotiating a de facto corporate bill of rights that will trump provincial powers over natural resources and public services. If signed, this deal will override areas of provincial jurisdiction set out in the Constitution. This deal can't fly under the radar any longer."

CUPE sent the 21-page legal opinion to all provincial and territorial governments in the hope they will improve their offers to better protect important policies and public services. It explains how CETA undermines modest NAFTA protections for sub-national policy, how it will alter constitutional divisions of power in many areas that are now provincial jurisdiction, and how the deal will be unevenly applied across the country.

"For example," writes Shrybman, "some provinces are seeking to preserve their right to promote renewable power, maintain supply management for agricultural commodities, or establish water conservation measures -- many others are not. The result would fragment Canada's constitutional landscape by creating ‘have' and ‘have-not' provinces, where the scarce resource will be the capacity to govern."

The opinion states that the reservations proposed by the EU:

are far more robust and extensive than those put forward by Canada. Thus, the EU is seeking to preserve much greater scope for measures that would otherwise violate CETA constraints, such as standards for: child care services; the maintenance of public sector water and energy monopolies; or environmental protection. For this purpose, the EU has, for example, put forward broad reservations for public services, monopolies, and regulations concerning water, health care, education, energy and many other services. For most of these services and entities, Canada has proposed no reservations whatsoever. For many others its proposals are perfunctory.

As the Council of Canadians and CUPE have recommended previously, Canada could simply adopt the same posture as the EU to make the agreement reciprocal in how it protects municipally delivered public services. The fact that the Harper government seems unwilling to do this suggests it sees Canada's public services, water in particular, as a bargaining chip to entice the EU and its large, competitive private service providers. Liberalizing these services also fits within Harper's ideological vision of a Canada where government just stops doing public services because they distort the free-market pattern of wealth distribution (i.e. straight to the top).

HARPER GOVERNMENT LOSING ITS COOL

Even before this week's bad press on CETA, the Harper government was showing signs of losing its cool. Trade Minister Ed Fast is going out of his way to avoid engaging any criticism about the deal, resorting instead to wild accusations and demonization of "anti-trade" forces.

"[T]here is a group out there that lacks intuition, who oppose our trade initiatives because they are fundamentally, and ideologically, opposed to trade. They are Canada's free trade deniers," he told a Chamber of Commerce gathering in Ottawa this May. "Over the last year, they have not changed. They remain shrill, ill-informed and hopelessly enslaved by archaic ideology and the failed policies of the past. Today, they call for ‘fair trade,' which is their code language for ‘no trade'."

"In fact," continued Fast, "they don't get trade; they don't like it; and, when you look them squarely in the eyes, they're actually afraid of trade."

There were presumably adults in the audience listening to this sermon, not Grade 2 students sitting cross-legged in a gymnasium. I wasn't there. But afraid of trade? Enslaved by archaic ideology? Come on. And please, Mr. Fast, tell us how you look someone squarely in the eye when you're avoiding a conversation with them?

If the April PR campaign proved anything it's that the Harper government is less interested in seriously debating its trade agenda than in conning us into accepting it. Asked by the Huffington Post about the growing municipal concerns and calls for exemptions, Fast's spokesman Rudy Husny said, "There are no costs (to CETA) -- there are only benefits; we are going to remove tariffs and we are going to increase trade."

No costs to free trade? Even free market fanatics know preferential trade deals involve a trade off, with some sectors paying a significant price (ex. significant job losses).

The news this week doesn't back up Harper's blind faith in CETA. But it does make things more awkward as Canada heads into another round of EU trade negotiations in Brussels next week. Awkward can be good some times...

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