Monday, December 17, 2012

Canada trade deal threatens Europe's environment

The funniest TV clip I've seen all year was broadcast in January. It featured an interview with Paula Broadwell many months before her affair with David Petraeus became public knowledge and forced his resignation as director of the CIA. "The real controversy here is: is he awesome or incredibly awesome?" The Daily Show host Jon Stewart said to Broadwell's face. With that brilliant put-down, Stewart underscored how her biography of Petraeus was an exercise in fawning.

At least Broadwell can point to how she was sleeping with her subject in mitigation. Lots of journalists have flimsier excuses for why they pander to the powerful. Take Bill Emmott: as editor of The Economist, he displayed his slavish devotion to the British establishment by insisting that the magazine support the war against Iraq.

Today, Emmott chairs the Canada-Europe Roundtable for Business (CERT), along with Roy MacLaren, a former minister in the Ottawa government. The two men want to convince us that a free trade deal between the EU and Canada will bring tangible benefits to ordinary people on both sides of the Atlantic. But why should we take them seriously when both are wealthy elitists? Both are active in the Trilateral Commission, an unelected group of political and business leaders that holds an invitation-only confab about how the world should be run every few months. (This isn't a conspiracy theory; it's a statement of fact).

CERT could soon be celebrating. There are strong signals that the trade deal it covets will be signed in the near future. To show that this is no ordinary deal, it will have a fancy title: the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA).

Documents that I have seen prove that corporations have been pushing for an accord that will give them the wherewithal to overturn labour and environmental laws which they perceive as barriers to making profit. Xstrata, the mining giant linked lately to Emmott's chum Tony Blair, has made specific proposals about the "dispute resolution" provision that is likely to be part of the trade deal. This provision will allow companies to sue the EU or Canada over measures or decisions they dislike. In a 2011 letter, John Smillie from Xstrata Nickel complained that REACH - the Union's main law on chemicals - can lead to substances being banned from the entire EU market based on the hazards they present.

Demand for "teeth"

"The challenge for any dispute resolution mechanism is how does it engage with a process that has no economic consideration and yet can have a very severe economic impact?" he wrote. "If the dispute resolution mechanism does not have the 'teeth' to deal with these sorts of issues, it is just another tariff-based trade agreement, and not the landmark, comprehensive and ambitious framework agreement that is being claimed and, we understand, both sides want."

Regardless of Smillie's concerns, the deal looks like it will be comprehensive and ambitious. An internal briefing paper written by the European Commission last month indicates that a dispute resolution mechanism will be included but that there was some difference of opinion about what it should cover. There is nothing in the paper to suggest that the Commission has told Xstrata or any other company that rules designed to protect nature and human health cannot be diluted on the say-so of a chief executive and his legal team. On the contrary, EU officials are pushing for a mechanism with "teeth".

CERT has breezily dismissed protests against the trade talks. When the National Union of Public and General Employees and several other Canadian groups called for transparency about what was under negotiation, CERT's Jason Langrish sent a "for your information" note to his contacts in Brussels. "Not a major concern, but shows engagement," he wrote.

Ideological warrior

Langrish is an ideological warrior. In a separate email message, he argued that Ontario's state-controlled alcohol shops should be privatised. "We would like to be able to buy our wine at the corner store at whatever time we want like anywhere else in the world. Most people recognise that the government really shouldn't be in an area where business can do the same job as well, if not better. It isn't health care, after all."

His pay-off line was misleading. CERT and its partner BusinessEurope have seen the trade talks as an opportunity to fundamentally transform Canadian health care. At their behest, the European Commission has advocated that large pharmaceutical companies should enjoy more robust "protections" for their "intellectual property" as a result CETA. Most particularly, the Commission wants Canada to introduce new restrictions of up to a decade on selling non-branded versions of patented medicines. A study carried out for the Canadian Generic Pharmaceutical Association has calculated that the EU's demands could push up the cost of medicine plans by $2.8 billion per year. Most of the extra spending will fall on provincial authorities, which cover 45% of prescription drug spending in Canada, according to the study.

It appears that the EU is attempting to damage Canada's health system - until now, much better than America's. Poverty among Canada's elderly has been rising since the mid-1990s - after two decades of being reduced. The old will inevitably suffer most if medical bills rise. Why do Brussels officials want to make senior citizens poorer? Will the EU simply do anything that Big Pharma asks it to? Is this the kind of behaviour we can expect from recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize?

•First published by New Europe, 16-23 December 2012.

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