Canadian trade negotiators will arrive in Brussels on Monday (15 October) amid an increasingly intense domestic debate about the value of the free-trade deal.
The Canadian government and the European Commission are both keen to complete talks this year on the comprehensive economic and trade agreement (CETA), whose liberalisation of services and removal of tariffs could, the Commission believes, be worth a combined €20 billion annually to the two economies.
A Canadian official said that “significant progress has been achieved across the board”, including on goods, services, investment and procurement.
The talks have received little attention in Europe, but critics in Canada are mounting a strong campaign. The focus on the agreement has been sharpened by the 25th anniversary of the North American free-trade agreement (NAFTA) and by ongoing US efforts to create a Trans-Pacific Partnership, an 11-country trade deal that includes Canada. A recent poll suggested that just 33% of Canadians believe NAFTA has helped the economy.
Political uncertainty has also been created by the victory of the separatist-minded Parti Québécois in regional elections in September. The party's trade minister, Jean-François Lisée, has said he is “moderately optimistic” that the Quebec government will sign up.
One outstanding issue is an EU clause compensating patent-holders for the time taken to gain market authorisation. Canadian producers of generic drugs claim that this would increase costs for Canadian taxpayers. This argument appears to have gained traction. A poll in September suggested that the public's support for CETA dropped from 81% to 31% once it was suggested that health costs could rise.
More broadly, some opponents argue that Canada's central government is using CETA to force liberalisation on provincial governments. They also say that some clauses could harm European taxpayers.
Stuart Trew of the Trade Justice Network said that investment rules – over which the EU gained competence through the Lisbon treaty – would make it easier for corporations “to sue European governments for public policies that purportedly breach corporate rights”.
He also said that a ‘negative-list' approach to services – under which a service sector, unless named, is automatically covered by the agreement – opens the way for a liberalisation of public services.
That view was rejected by Jason Langrish of the transatlantic Canada-Europe Roundtable for Business, who said that this approach “will allow for inclusion of services that have not yet been invented”. The Commission argues that a ‘negative approach' is more transparent.