Canada-Europe free trade: after Victoria's pullout, Vancouver demands clarity on 'clandestine' CETA deal
With NDP, Liberals and civil society groups criticizing Canada's secretive CETA agreement, VO continues our series on the pact's impact on Canadians' water, democracy, jobs and health. Part IV examines why some cities are voting against CETA - and whether Vancouver is next.
In a landmark decision for BC communities, Victoria City Council voted unanimously on May 10 to be excluded from what international trade minister Ed Fast touts as “the most ambitious trade deal” in history.
Victoria passed a motion to opt out of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), currently in final-stage secret negotiations with Europe, only weeks after federal cabinet ministers were deployed across Canada to promote it.
- Part I: Canada-EU free trade agreement called corporate Trojan horse
- Part II: Canada-EU free trade: water privatization not happening, authorities insist
- Part III: Tories claim Canada-Europe free trade deal will boost Canadian jobs. Unions disagree
"Clandestine" deal with Europe
“The imminence of passing the deal is pushing municipalities into a last-ditch place: if we can't be party to the deal, we don't want to be part of it,” said Victoria City Councillor Marianne Alto, who put forward the successful resolution, in an interview with the Vancouver Observer. “The federal government has been remarkably clandestine on this.
“They have not engaged, in any meaningful way, with the level of government most likely to be affected by this. . . My mom told me never sign a deal without seeing the fine print – I couldn't, in good conscience and for my residents, do that.”
The city's decision joins motions in nearly 60 municipalities across Canada, including opt-out votes in Toronto, Montreal and Hamilton, warning that CETA risks banning municipalities from enacting buy-local or hire-local policies, and potentially impinges on city contracts such as water services.
CETA and Vancouver: a need for clarity
But while the deal has raised concern amongst Vancouver's leadership, so far it has not been addressed in Council.
“We share people's worries and concerns,” said Vancouver City Councillor Tim Stevenson. “Would (CETA) encroach on any of what we hold now as our legal rights as a municipality?
“Obviously, we need to have a good trade relationship with Europe. . . But as municipalities, we're concerned about what that might mean as far as restrictions on our municipal lives.”
Stevenson emphasized that the City of Vancouver's strategy is to act in tandem with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM), of which both it and Victoria are members, in order to avoid a “go it alone” approach.
“At this point, Vancouver (has) decided not to go down the symbolic route which Toronto and Montreal did,” he said.
Stevenson – who also sits on the FCM committee addressing CETA – said that protecting water services are a top priority, as well as municipal decision-making ability. He said that, although the government has met with the FCM and offered assurances that there is nothing to fear, what cities want is to see what's actually in the deal.
“We just can't do anything until we get a piece of paper,” he said. “That's where Vancouver is at now: 'Give us a draft. Let us get some assurance.'”
In Victoria, Alto hopes the added pressure of opt-out votes across the country will add clout to the FCM's demands for more transparency.
Is water privatization on the table?
But the federal government insisted that the deal has been the “most transparent” of its kind, a spokesperson said, and will not privatize water services or impinge on municipal rights. However, the spokesperson admitted CETA will create a tribunal process whereby companies can dispute municipal procurement decisions.
"Canada and the European Union would be required to maintain an independent bid challenge, or domestic review, authority to provide a right of recourse to suppliers," said Rudy Husny, press secretary for the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT), in an email to the Vancouver Observer. "Provinces and territories are free to establish their own domestic review mechanisms or to rely upon the court systems to review supplier complaints on sub-federal procurement within their jurisdiction.
"From the very start of negotiations the government has worked closely with the provinces, territories and municipalities to ensure that everyones concerns are heard and reflected as the negotiations move forward.”
The FCM said that it continues to raise concerns about CETA with DFAIT and Ed Fast, Minister of International Trade. It added that the department's acceptance of "seven principles of fair trade," which FCM proposed, is a positive step.
"We’ve been working to make sure the federal government respects and protects municipal interests in a CETA deal," Berry Vrbanovic, president of FCM. "We've communicated these principles very clearly to Minister Fast, who has been supportive and has committed to continuing to consult municipalities as negotiations lead to a final agreement."
Cities are "Harper's bargaining chips": Barlow
The Council of Canadians, a national advocacy group which is campaigning against the deal, celebrated Victoria's opt-out vote as sending a strong message that CETA goes too far in trampling on municipal rights and water services.
“We congratulate the City of Victoria for standing up for local jobs and local democracy,” said the group's National Chairperson, Maude Barlow, in a statement. “The truth is there’s no benefit to Canadian municipalities for being shackled by international trade restrictions on their local policy and spending powers.
“Cities are Harper's bargaining chips in these EU negotiations – they should have a right to say no to CETA.”
The motion calls upon Premier Christy Clark to request Victoria's exclusion. Provinces, not cities, are part of the CETA negotiations, rumoured to be in their final stages.
“As an integral part of the CETA, the EU is requiring full access to municipal procurement,” the May 10 resolution stated. “Disputes by private firms against local policy decisions could be taken before private trade tribunals that lack transparency and have the authority to impose fines.
“Be it thus resolved that . . . City Council ask the Province of British Columbia for a clear, permanent exemption for the City of Victoria from the Canada-European Union (EU) Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA).”
As an example of how CETA might impact cities, Alto cited the city's plan to replace the iconic Johnson Street bridge – a construction project with a $92.8 million tab. Under the trade agreement's proposed procurement clause, Victoria would have open to such a contract to European companies – and face a tribunal challenge and possible penalty if it chose to contract out locally, Alto said.
“We'd be placed in some very difficult positions,” Alto said. “If we make decisions – for whatever good we decide is best for our community – we'd be in a position that would be risky.”
The federal government estimates CETA will add $12 billion a year to Canada's economy and create up to 80,000 new jobs. Unions, however, have disputed those numbers and say that hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs stand to be lost under the deal.