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Canada-EU free trade: 'Cooking up a deal without much input -- let us see a draft!' say city leaders

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Vancouver City Councillor Tim Stevenson. Photo by David P. Ball

It's “the most ambitious plan of its kind in history,” boasts Canada's international trade minister Ed Fast, as Conservative cabinet ministers hit cities across the country today to market Canada's impending free trade deal with Europe. Media declared the push as a "political war."

And yet the public knows almost nothing about the secret negotiations -- except that they are in their final stages, to be completed this year. 

A huge swathe of civil society is worried about the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) -- including the New Democrats and Liberals, labour unions, the Council of Canadians, public health activists and environmentalists alike, but also the country's municipalities and generic drug makers.

“Closed-door meetings have created a climate of secrecy in the CETA process,” the NDP said in a statement last month. “Too little public information exists for Canadians and their elected representatives, at all levels of government, to reach informed conclusions on the merits and risks of CETA.”

Leaked documents, they argue, show that CETA will allow -- for the first time -- multinational corporations to sue or directly challenge cities and provinces if they “discriminate” with hire-local or buy-local requirements, for instance (when I asked the international trade department, they confirmed such challenges are in the deal). Others warn that European drug companies are pushing for Canada to ratchet up their profits by boosting patent times. Another concern is that the deal will pressure municipalities to privatize their water services. Not to mention union warnings of 150,000 job losses.

Are these fears warranted?

The Left Coast Post spoke with Vancouver councillor Tim Stevenson, who sits on the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM)'s intergovernmental & finance committee – a group with has raised concerns about the deal. He's met with international trade minister Ed Fast, and has been on conference calls with Canada's chief negotiator.

Stevenson said people are right to be suspicous. Here's what he knows about a deal bound up in secrecy, despite being touted as the most transparent trade deal ever –- and what Vancouver plans to do about it.

LEFT COAST POAST: So what is the FCM's position on Canada-Europe free trade?

TIM STEVENSON: We would like a seat at the table during these negotiations. At least, through the FCM, municipalities are having some representation, and I think Don (Downe, committee chair) would say -- at this point -- we're pretty pleased with the participation of the FCM. But the FCM has not taken a position either for or against CETA yet -- we want to see the draft documents. It's all very well to ask questions and express fears that arise -- as you see, some municipalities are not accepting that, they're making some broad gestures.

LCP: You mean, like the cities of Toronto, Hamilton and Montreal voting to 'opt out' of CETA?

TS: Yes. We're not as concerned as those municipalities yet, but the possibility of real problems for municipalities are there. But we don't know yet what those will be. Even if what is said verbally is put down onto paper and handed to us, it's in the details are where you're going to find the problems. (CETA's) wording has to be very exact.

LCP: What are the biggest concerns?

TS: Obviously, we need to have a good trade relationship with Europe. In Canada, we have much to offer. But as municipalities, we're concerned about what that might mean as far as restrictions on our municipal lives. Also, water is near and dear to my heart, as I have been chair of the Metro water committee. I've been to international conferences and know there is a push in many quarters for the privatization of water. That's been a huge concern of mine, both at the Metro, and as a councillor at FCM.

LCP: Has there been any indication that water is or is not on the table?

TS: We have been assured by Minister Fast that each municipality will retain the authorization to regulate its own water systems. We even have a letter from Minister Fast, in which he makes statement on the municipal ability to regulate water. A vast majority of municipalities across the country do not have privatized water; in fact, we're quite against the privatization of water. On this very crucial issue of water, at the moment, we have the absolute assurance that we will continue to retain authority over it. Then again, we haven't seen the drafts. We at (the City of Vancouver) and Metro will be looking very, very carefully -- not only at water, but every aspect of this agreement, and what has been given up in order to get what (the government) wants out of this. Make sure we're not running into problems. 

LCP: Why have so many groups raised fears about CETA -- for instance, on multinational corporations being able to sue municipalities for discrimination, or the privatization of water services? Is this just, as (British High Commissioner) Gordon Campbell said, the same old protesters who have always opposed free trade?

TS: No. Obviously, there are people across the country who are fairly suspicious of this. And I don't think they're suspicious for no reason at all. The government is in negotiations, and we are not at the table. Through the FCM, we're going to do as much as we can to learn -- and maybe we'll find that people's suspicions were correct.

LCP: What would happen if that were the case -- if the suspicions were correct all along?

TS: At that time, if those who have suspicious were correct, we in Vancouver will take all necessary steps that we can to deal with the problem, legal or otherwise. Certainly, at this time -- we're fully aware of both the possibilities and possible pitfalls of what other cities are doing (i.e. symbolically opting out of CETA, opposing the deal, etc.).

LCP: What other approach might there be for Vancouver?

TS: My primary point is that the FCM is our vehicle. If we go it alone and do our own thing, it's not going to be of much help. We have a great deal of faith in the FCM to deal with and negotiate with the federal government. At this point, Vancouver -- and I -- have decided not to go down the symbolic route which Toronto and Montreal did. If we find, at end of day, they haven't been as transparent as they claim they have been -- if this has all been smoke and mirrors -- the FCM will react accordingly. And it won't be a good reaction! 

LCP: When I spoke with someone at (the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, DFAIT), he confirmed that there will be, in fact, a dispute process whereby companies can challenge municipal and provincial contract decisions. Some have expressed particular concerns that this will most impact cities that go down the road of public-private partnerships (P3s) -- as Vancouver has -- since business already has a foot in the door.

TS: We heard directly from Canada's chief negotiator that P3s will be fully exempted from the agreement -- that P3s will not subject to the terms of CETA. But until the agreement is finalized, FCM continues to forward this question. It's raised every time we've had discussions, and we've continued to raise it with the Department and the Minister, so all municipalities -- including Vancouver -- have the best information possible.

LCP: Isn't the secrecy of the negotiations itself a concern? What makes the FCM so certain its concerns will be heard and affect the deal?

TS: We just have to go on what's being said. I know some (FCM) members got themselves quite worked up about this, but we've had these assurances. If that's incorrect, that would be a very difficult situation between the FCM and the federal government. It would mean that we haven't been given the full information. But at the moment, the chief negotiator for them has said that P3s will be fully exempted.

LCP: What about the other questions -- for instance, the dispute process itself, pharmaceutical prices, municipal rights? You've been given assurances, but without seeing an actual draft you can't know what's in there, right? What if the final document is signed before FCM has a chance to examine it?

TS: It's just not enough to go on. At this point, everything is speculation. It is sad we keep getting no answers (to requests for more details). But we're getting direct assurances.

LCP: Has Vancouver's response to CETA come up in City Council, or on the management level? What's the unacceptable line that you're not willing to cross?

TS: That isn't a discussion we've had in Vancouver -- what we'd accept or not. We're basically waiting to see what they come forward with, and we'll react with the FCM. But we're not going to go and begin to go it alone. I'm not saying we shouldn't be vigilant -- we should be. But we really don't know. We're also looking at the environmental regulations that seem to be being challenged (through other free trade agreements) -- that has been of great concern to many people. There's enough reason for people to be concerned and vigilant. I personally don't have a problem with those who raise these flags, they are very important flags to raise. Hopefully, at the end of the day, they'll be found to be not a concern. But they have been raised, and I certainly have raised them at FCM.

LCP: Do you feel municipalities' voice has been heard by the government and by negotiators?

TS: It's not as if our voice hasn't been heard -- the government keeps coming back saying we've been heard. They're saying, 'We've been transparent' -- that's in writing, not just in words. At end of day, if this has been smoke and mirrors, and these folks (the critics) have been right all along, it's going to be extraordinary -- I can't even imagine it! Nevertheless, such things have happened before. The more that citizens raise up issues of concern, the more politicians will hear them -- so it's not just background noise, but it's on their mind. Otherwise they may not hear.

LCP: What about the deal's secrecy? Isn't that worrying?

TS: I'm pleased to have people raise those concerns (about secrecy) -- there are folks cooking up a deal without much input. We're doing our due diligence, the City Manager is, and I personally am. We just can't do anything until we get a piece of paper. That's where Vancouver is at now: 'Give us a draft. Let us get some assurance.' We want assurance by seeing a draft, then we can look at its language. Until that happens, people will keep raising these issues, and all we can do is say, 'Yes, you're right, and we're raising these issues ourselves. Here's what the government is saying -- if you don't believe it, you may have valid reasons to believe that.'

LCP: So could you rank the top concerns that Vancouver has about CETA?

TS: As the City of Vancouver, we share people's worries and concerns. Actually, water is our primary concern. We're worried about that -- but also, would (CETA) encroach on zoning? Would it encroach on any of what we hold now as our legal rights as a municipality? Is it going to touch us? How's it going to touch us? Really, when it comes down to it, all the areas our municipality is concerned about are how (CETA) will impact us, and whether it will restrict us or not.

LCP: If the FCM is unhappy with the final document, what will happen then?

TS: That hasn't been discussed, at least at the committee level. First of all, it would be obviously analyzed by staff, then come to the FCM's committee, then we would probably ask for municipal input -- from there, that might be enough for the (FCM) board to say, 'This is our position.' Or we may make it a campaign if we didn't like it or wanted a change... if we were absolutely opposed to the agreement. We would probably look, for sure, to convince the government before they signed that there are changes that need to be made. But i want to stress that certainly there has been absolutely no talk about this, I hadn't thought about it until you asked the question. It's just speculation: 'what happens if.'

LCP: What's your biggest hope to see in a Canada-Europe free trade deal?

TS: Hopefully -- and we're all hopeful -- we're looking at a good agreement, for the country and for municipalities, with Europe. The (European Union) is a huge trading block; it'll be good for Canada if we can tie down something good for all of us. As a municipality, we haven concerns and want to make sure our interests are maintained. We don't want to get in the way of a trade agreement -- we just want to make sure it's best for municipalities.

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