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The Vancouver Convention Centre February 13, 2008. (Laura Leyshon for the Globe and Mail/Laura Leyshon for the Globe and Mail)
The Vancouver Convention Centre February 13, 2008. (Laura Leyshon for the Globe and Mail/Laura Leyshon for the Globe and Mail)

Perplexing silence hangs over proposed Canada, E.U. trade pact Add to ...

When Canada's premiers gather in Vancouver next week, it's hard to imagine that the subject of trade talks with the European Union won't come up. The potential ramifications of any deal for the provinces are enormous.

And yet there has been little discussion in Canada about the proposed Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), which is perplexing given the far-reaching implications for this country of any pact with the EU. We're talking about a trade deal that in many ways is as big as the North American free-trade agreement and, in several instances, poses potential problems for Canadians as serious and disturbing as any in the 1994 accord with the Americans.

For starters, the deal could add nearly $3-billion a year in costs to Canadian drug plans - including $250-million in B.C. and $1.2-billion in Ontario. This is because it would delay our access to cheaper generic drugs by several years.

Among the CETA perks that Europeans are eyeing is the right to bid on government work in Canada - in other words, those contracts tendered by provincial and local governments in Canada that now mostly go to local companies. CETA would end that preferential practice.

Think about that for a moment. And then consider the many local governments across the country that use procurement as a tool to promote economic development. A reported 60 per cent of municipalities in B.C. have economic-development strategies that include local procurement and hiring.

This is why the Union of B.C. Municipalities passed a motion at its annual meeting last year opposing CETA - a vote that mostly went unreported by the media. And it is why B.C. NDP leader Adrian Dix has been banging the drum of alarm about CETA since assuming the helm of his party earlier this year.

In B.C., this provision of the proposed trade agreement is particularly ironic given Premier Christy Clark's highly visible efforts to help local shipbuilders win a $35-billion federal contract to build navy frigates and other vessels. Under CETA, more experienced and, many would argue, more efficient and cost-effective shipbuilders in Europe would be on a level playing field with their counterparts in Canada in bidding for that massive contract.

This part of the proposed agreement has already emerged as an issue for Ontario. The province's Green Energy Act was introduced as a subsidy-paying, job-creation program for local companies. That wouldn't be allowed under CETA.

The scope of CETA is mind-boggling, really. The pact would also make it easier for Europeans to work in Canada and vice versa. For that to happen, professional standards, procedures and regulations would have to be harmonized across the country. It's hard to fathom how much spade work would need to be done in this area alone before CETA could become a reality.

This is why the provinces are at the CETA negotiating table with the federal government and representatives of the European Union.

So what's in it for Canada? It would appear the biggest lure is unfettered access to the $17-trillion European market. Although there would seem to be a legitimate question of exactly how stable that economy is at the moment.

The idea that CETA would allow more open labour mobility between Canada and Europe sounds wonderful in theory. (And this was a key goal of Canadian negotiators.) But right now, I would imagine it would be mostly a one-way street. That would be Europeans coming to Canada to find employment, not the other way around.

If Canada was awash in jobs, that might not be an issue. But it is not. Resentment could build quickly.

The eighth round of CETA negotiations between Canada, its provinces and the EU began this week in Brussels. There is behind-the-scenes murmuring that talks may have hit a rough patch over the issue of procurements. Of course, we don't know for sure because the negotiations are being held in confidence.

It all seems odd. During the NAFTA talks, Canada had an on-going national debate about the merits of that trade deal. And yet, for a trade pact that some argue is even bigger in scale, there is a deafening silence across the land. Canadians have virtually no idea of what is being negotiated on their behalf. They should. The stakes are enormous.

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