Sunday, June 5, 2011

Canada talks dirty on trade

Whenever I hear the name Canada, I go all mushy. Chipmunks capering in suburban gardens; waitresses that sing the word “awesome” every time someone asks for a beer; summer afternoons beside majestic lakes. Could this be the world’s cutest country?

There is one anomaly: a repugnant government. Stephen Harper, its prime minister, has arguably posed a bigger threat to the survival of the human species than his buddy, George W Bush. Though little known over here, Harper should be regarded as an enemy of the European people.

Tar sands buried in Alberta comprise the largest reserves of crude oil outside of Saudi Arabia. Because scientists are almost unanimous in linking fossil fuels to climate change, the only responsible course of action is to leave them in the ground. Much to the delight of Shell and BP, the Harper government is adamant that they should be extracted and exported.

In February, the Canadian trade minister Peter Van Loan said that the issue of selling tar sands to Europe is being treated separately from talks aimed at reaching a free trade agreement with the EU. His statement was misleading. Reuters subsequently published details of a letter that the Canadian embassy sent to the European Commission in March, which warned that Ottawa may take retaliatory action if the EU was to introduce strict rules on the environmental effects of tar sands. The letter argued that “singling out” tar sands by subjecting them to tougher standards than conventional oil would amount to “unjustified discrimination” and implied that this would have repercussions for the trade negotiations.

Over the past few days, a Canadian newspaper The Dominion has revealed details of a major offensive undertaken by Harper and his minions in Europe. A “pan-European oil sands advocacy strategy” was launched in December 2009, under which politicians worked with energy giants to address the “reputational risk” for Canada caused by tar sands. The strategy focused on the EU’s fuel quality legislation, with Canadian diplomats in Brussels coordinating a lobbying campaign to convince MEPs and the Union’s officials to lay off tar sands.

The strategy has clearly had an impact. In a 2009 paper, the European Commission cited estimates that petrol derived from tar sands were 20% more damaging to the climate than conventional petrol. Yet when the Commission recommended “implementing measures” for a fuel quality directive in February last year, it left out any reference on the need for a separate standard for tar sands.

MEPs gathering in Strasbourg this week are scheduled to debate what effect the tar sands debate is having on the aforementioned trade talks. I hope that they will denounce Harper’s attempts to prolong and worsen our oil addiction but I wouldn’t bet on them doing so.

The idea of a free trade agreement with the EU was not hatched by Harper, it appears. A US diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks indicates that Jean Chrétien was eager to kickstart the process of attaining a deal with Europe before he stepped down as Canada’s premier in 2003. Yet Harper – seldom missing a chance to court corporate power - has shown particular brio in encouraging the talks with Europe, which eventually got underway in 2009.

The objective is no bog-standard deal, apparently, but a “comprehensive economic and trade agreement” (CETA). Full-on liberalisation and privatisation will be positively encouraged in what Stuart Trew from the Council of Canadians, a social justice group, calls this “freakish economic experiment”.

One draft of a potential agreement recommends setting up a trade in goods arrangement where countries could not show a preference for less polluting versions of the same product. If enforced, this would prevent Europe from restricting imports of tar sands.

Another proposal under discussion is that the agreement would be based around the concept of “negative lists”. This would mean that if a government or regional authority in either Europe or Canada did not explicitly exclude a sector of economic activity or a particular service from the agreement, it would automatically be included. This could pave the way for opening up vital services like healthcare to competition among companies, who would only be inclined to treat patients if doing so was deemed commercially advantageous.

The European Services Forum, an influential outfit banding together Veolia, Goldman Sachs and Vodafone, is advocating that CETA should be modelled on the North America Free Trade Agreement, concluded between the US, Canada and Mexico in 1994. The forum particularly wants chapter 11 of NAFTA pasted into an EU-Canada accord. That chapter allows private firms to sue governments over laws or measures regarded as obstacles to profit-making.

NAFTA has undermined the concept that water is a public resource. In 2008, AbitibiBowater, a Canadian company registered in the US, closed a paper mill it operated in Newfoundland. When the province sought to re-appropriate water use permits allocated to the company, AbitibiBowater invoked NAFTA to argue it owned the licenses (even though they were conditional on production). Effectively enabling water to be privatised, the federal government decided to settle the company’s 130 million Canadian dollar (93 million euros) claim.

If comparable provisions make their way into CETA, we could easily see North American behemoths waging war against authorities in Europe which, say, oppose genetically modified crops. Providing executives with all that ammunition is an assault on democracy, yet CETA has elicited little comment on this continent. Unless it’s stopped, we could be sleepwalking towards disaster.

·First published by New Europe (, 5-11 June 2011

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