The Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement (CETA) between the EU and Canada is now on the verge of ratification. On Thursday 12 January, the European Parliamentary Committee with responsibility for Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI), voted to endorse the agreement, despite opposition from a significant number of MEPs including Ireland's Luke Ming Flanagan and Lynn Boylan. A final vote by European MEPs takes place on February 14.
The ICSA has joined forces with over 80 Irish groups to urge MEPs to reject CETA. It's an unlikely coalition of farming groups, environmentalists, civil liberties groups, NGOs and heritage organisations. They fear long-term repercussions if the EU bows to the demands of a wide-ranging trade deal which promises to lower 98% of trade barriers, at the expense of lowering EU standards.
Irish MEP Lynn Boylan said of CETA: “At a time when EU credibility is increasingly fragile, it is a worrying sign that EU negotiators see no problem negotiating in secret major trade deals which will have serious impacts on the everyday lives of our citizens.” Luke Flanagan is vociferously opposed to the deal. In a statement earlier this week he said: “Despite the tag, CETA is not about Trade, it’s about big business and standards – labour standards, environment standards, food quality standards, healthcare standards – and it’s about big business and access to and potential private ownership of what are normally seen as public utilities – water, power, transport, communication, etc.”
Negotiations for CETA were carried on in secret over five years, beginning in 2009 at the Canada-EU summit in Prague. It's exact terms were only made public after it was leaked to German television in August 2014. 1,634 pages of consolidated text were subsequently published by the EU. It was the first chance Europe's 510 million people got to see what had been decided on their behalf. This alone was cause for concern. It seemed as if those negotiating the deal did not want us to know its details. They waited as long as they could before making its contents public, thereby restricting the opportunity for those who might oppose it to resist its implementation.
Ordinarily, most people in the farming community would welcome new trade agreements. Agriculture is an export-dependent sector and we need trading partners. But CETA is no ordinary trade agreement. It is a 'comprehensive' deal that would open up European markets to a range of competition from international companies located, but not necessarily based, in Canada. This is important because it would mean American multinationals could access European markets through Canadian subsidiaries. These same companies have successfully evaded attempts to regulate them in the US and now they want unfettered access here.
In terms of farming, CETA would mean lower-priced goods from huge farming enterprises flooding our markets. Patrick Kent, President of the ICSA said: “5% of Canadian farmers produce nearly half of Canada’s food produce. So that’s the scale of operators our small, and more quality oriented farmers will be competing with – with Canada’s different and lower standards on the use of antibiotics, steroids and hormones in animals destined for the food chain.”
Deregulated genetically modified (GM) foodstuffs might be one inevitable result of the CETA deal, as a harmonisation of rules is unlikely to result in stricter conditions for Canadian producers. This would involve the expansion of glyphosate use here, as most GM crops are glyphosate tolerant. In meat production, the use of growth hormones and antibiotics, as allowed by Canada, could easily become the only way for Europe to compete. This would have public health implications for the emergence of superbugs and the problem of antibiotic resistance.
European environmental standards and restrictions on chemicals, growth hormones and animal welfare would be seen as impediments to free trade. Canada has much looser regulations than the EU and, as with TTIP, the big money behind CETA wants Europe to allow GM crops and hormone-fed meats. Chemicals currently banned in Europe because they were found to pose too much risk to public health or wildlife, like endocrine disruptors and neonicotinoids, are still widely used in Canada.
Furthermore, climate targets could be impeded by Canada's desire to sell its highly-polluting tar sands oil in the EU. Oil from Alberta's tar sands is extracted using massive amounts of water and power. Bitumen sludge is excavated from the ground and boiled in a chemical stew. The process releases more greenhouse gases than any other form of mineral mining and since its introduction Canada's emissions have soared. Low oil prices of late have slowed its expansion, but the industry is poised to take advantage of any growth in oil prices.
Fracking is another area of concern. Ireland is in the process of passing legislation to ban this risky industry here, to protect our good reputation for clean food. Under CETA it would be possible for fracking companies to sue our government for not allowing them to exploit resources, even though the ban on fracking is intended to safeguard drinking water and public health.
This leads us to a major source of opposition to CETA. As with TTIP, investor courts threaten to displace our conventional legal system. These would allow companies who feel aggrieved about restrictions caused by European laws, to challenge them in a specially designated court of arbitration. Challenges brought against nation states in such courts could result in multi-million euro awards of compensation to the companies, even when the legislation has clear public benefits. In their open letter, the Irish coalition of interest groups opposing CETA said the deal “has the potential to undermine public health by opening the door for businesses to challenge public health laws that are perceived as barriers to trade.”
Not only would cheaper Canadian goods and services flood European markets, but public services could be outsourced as well. Everything that is currently state-run, from postal services to roads authorities, could be made subject to tender from international companies. This might bring down the cost to the state of providing these services, but it would inevitably affect their quality. Corporate entities know how to save money on frills. We could find ourselves looking back with longing at the days when a friendly postman had time to for conversation, or to figure out where to deliver that vaguely addressed letter.
In conclusion, while the idea of opening trade is a good one, this deal looks rotten. In theory we could convince Canada to raise its standards to meet ours and if this happened, a happy cooperation could ensue. With CETA in its current form however, this is highly unlikely to happen. Lobby groups within Brussels have been working hard to convince politicians to set aside their own fears and support CETA. They promise it will mean jobs and benefits, but without assurances about public health, environmental and food standards these promises mean nothing. If this deal goes through on February 14 we will all lose. That is why I would join with those calling on MEPs to vote to reject CETA and renegotiate a trade deal with the best interests of ordinary people at its core. Canada and the EU have much in common and we can do better than this.