Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper went to Brussels last week to conclude a Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement between Canada and the European Union. The conclusion of the deal opens the door to a comprehensive ratification process after four years of negotiation. Within two years, it is expected that the pact’s goals of mutual market access and the lowering of trade barriers will be fully realized.
The new free-trade agreement is expected to bolster Canadian income by $12 billion annually, according to a recent press-release from the Prime Minister’s Office.
With CETA finally concluded, many are wondering what lies ahead on Canada’s trade agenda. The answer is another acronym: TPP (Trans-Pacific-Partnership) – a free-trade agreement whose scope looks set to spark more controversy than that of the CETA concluded this week, which enjoyed broad support from federal politicians.
The agreement faces some Canadian detractors, many of whom characterize it as a “back-door mechanism” for regulatory change. In particular, intellectual property and internet privacy regulations have caught the attention of analysts who fear that fiercer-than-warranted regulations would be imposed if Canada concludes the TPP alongside the United States and other Pacific-rim nations.
Fueling the fire of criticism is the notoriously secretive nature of trade agreements. Throughout their history, this fact has made it possible for critics to speak ominously about in-camera trade-aways of sovereignty to foreign interests. The reality is, however, that in order to candidly discuss issues sensitive both to consumers and special-interests without derailing talks in fits of press-frenzy every time negotiators go back and forth on a point, some secrecy is necessary. The Canadian government’s particularly hush-hush attitude towards the TPP in particular, however, is deeply troubling even to opposition members and MPs who broadly supported CETA. They complain that they have yet to gain any access to preliminary texts of the agreement.
In the United States, letters from legislators including one from prominent senate Democrat Elizabeth Warren, and another led by house democrat Rosa DeLauro (D-Connecticut) and signed by over 130 lawmakers have succeeded in securing the limited release of bracketed texts to congress, though members of congress are barred from discussing specifics with reporters. Canadian lawmakers, unfortunately, have had no such luck in gaining limited access.
If the Government of Canada sincerely wishes for an expeditious signature and ratification of the TPP agreement, Canadians need more transparency. The Government of Canada initiated a “comprehensive consultation process” of domestic stakeholders including the provincial governments at the end of 2011 in the interests of “[helping] Canada outline the parameters of this initiative”, but this is not enough. Because of the fuzzy details and speculation, whatever economic benefit the deal may produce can only be discussed in abstract terms. Meanwhile, leaks relating to potential policy implications for internet privacy and intellectual property rights provide concrete points of opposition.
Given the generally positive impact of free trade agreements in Canada and across the world – NAFTA, to take a single example, expanded intra-North American trade by a factor of three between its implementation and 2009, according to the Council on Foreign Relations – the Government of Canada should not fear making public the economic implications of the agreement it is negotiating. This is not to say that the public requires minute by minute updates, but it does mean reasonable disclosure. It is a curious, counter-intuitive, and deeply problematic trend that as trade agreements have become less contentious in general, the public availability of information relating to their negotiation is becomes more circumscribed. NAFTA, by mainstream accounts now one of the most successful economic agreements in history, was famously and ferociously debated in the public spheres of Canada and the United States.
TPP countries have set an admirable – albeit unrealistic – end-of-2013 deadline for the successful conclusion of talks. If the Government of Canada is serious about achieving the expeditious signature and ratification of what will be the world’s largest free trade agreement by economic scope at conclusion, they need to trust the public and its elected politicians. The psychological impact of total secrecy does little to engender Canadian popular opinion.