Comments on the Canada/EU Free Trade Agreement

For the past four years negotiations have been taking place between Canada and the European Union about the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA). While full details of the agreement have yet to be disclosed, and will not be fully understood until the final details emerge in 2014 or later, the CETA could have huge impacts on the Canadian environment and food system.

CETA is the most expansive free trade agreement (FTA) since the controversial North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) which was signed over 20 years ago. The negative impacts of the NAFTA on the economy, environment and the agricultural sector are widely cited, which has caused some to raise concerns about the potential threats CETA could pose.

Though experts and activists have sounded alarms, wide-spread outcry amongst the general public has been all but absent. Given the current media climate filled with senate scandals and crack-smoking mayors, CETA has not received the attention it deserves. Admittedly trade negotiations do not ignite the same amount of public curiosity as misreported expense claims and cocaine fueled hubris, but the need to understand their impacts on our lives, while less entertaining, are considerably more important. For that reason I decided to give a brief overview of this FTA as it relates to local procurement, environmental protection, and the agricultural sector in Nova Scotia.

CETA and Public Procurement

One of the most concerning elements of the CETA is that it curtails the power of municipal governments to support local economic development and related social and environmental benefits. Unlike the NAFTA agreement before it, CETA operates at a subnational level, meaning that the EU would be able to compete for municipal contracts with local companies, and would deter governments from unduly supporting local business, as it would be seen under international trade law as unfairly impeding free trade. This is particularly concerning in terms of the potential detriments the agreement could have on Buy Local campaigns, in that government support of small business and producers could be construed as an unfair subsidy (TFPC 2012; CCPA 2012). Given that the Nova Scotia government has committed to allotting 20% of our food dollars locally produced food by 2020, under the Environmental Goals and Sustainable Prosperity Act (EGSPA), it is essential that we are clear on how CETA will affect this and other pieces of policy like it see article.

CETA and Environmental Protection

The CETA agreement marks a notable shift towards ‘investor rights’ as opposed to the rights of Canadian citizens to defend their local economies and environment. Increased ‘investor rights’ mean that foreign governments and corporations now have extended powers to over-turn environmental policies if they are seen to interfere with that entity’s ability to make a profit. Under the NAFTA agreement, dozens of cases have been brought before the World Trade Organization (WTO) in which local environmental policies were seen to be unlawful as they blocked the ability of corporations to make a buck. These claims come with substantial fines and often have the result of creating a cooling effect in policy circles. Politicians become less likely to rock the boat and more progressive social and environmental policies take a back seat to economic gain on the part of a small few.

One such case is the example of Bilcon, an American corporation, who recently took the Nova Scotia government to court for rejecting their proposal for a basalt quarry in the Digby Neck area. The community opposed the quarry as it conflicted with their ‘core values’ and was found to have considerable environmental risks. Bilcon saw the motion by the Environmental Review Panel as unfair, and went to the NAFTA tribunal asking for $188 million in reparations for lost profit. The case remains unresolved but clearly demonstrates the power corporations have to dispute environmental policy and the public will. While the federal government is likely responsible for this bill, municipalities could be forced to pay up in the future under the new sub-national stipulations of CETA (CCPA 2012). This will likely have the result of making policy makers squeamish about introducing bills counter to the interest of big business. Giving primacy to investor rights is a fundamentally problematic approach as it prevents local communities from protecting their local environments and the people who live within them. The potential impacts on our ground water, air quality and overall environmental well-being could seriously impede our ability to grow safe and abundant food in Nova Scotia in the future.

CETA and the Agricultural Sector

Traditionally, FTA’s have encouraged greater concentration within the agricultural sector, decreasing the number of producers, and orienting the market towards export based production as opposed to production for domestic consumption. This has had obvious negative effects on farming communities and equally negative effects on the environment as a result of more chemically intensive forms of production and the shipping of foods across greater and greater distances (TFPC 2012).

Under the CETA agreement, Canadian Farmers will have more access to European Markets but European producers will also have unprecedented access to Canadian markets. In many instances the EU has greater production capacity and greater protection for producers than we do on our end. The result could be an unfair trading relationship for Canadian farmers. This is of particular concern for dairy producers across the country. The rapid influx of European cheese, no longer subject to high import tariffs, is suspected to seriously destabilize dairy markets, challenging the marketing boards who up until now have carefully managed the amount of dairy products on the market to ensure fair prices to farmers. Without adequate protections from the government, Nova Scotian dairy farmers fear their livelihoods may be at risk (CCPA 2012).

Others have raised concerns that CETA will further entrench Intellectual Property Rights which give large agro-industrial corporations like Monsanto greater power to restrict seed saving practices and pursue legal action against farmers found to be growing patented seed varieties without a license (TFPC 2012; CCPA 2012).

Concluding Remarks

This is just a very brief overview of some of the potential impacts CETA could have on the powers of municipalities to make decisions, the environment and the agricultural sector. If you would like to learn more about the agreement follow the links below or visit the Council of Canadians website for more information.  If you’re concerned about the effects CETA could have on Nova Scotia and Canada, talk to your local elected official about what they’re doing to protect local economies, local producers and the environment. While this may seem like a common refrain, municipalities around the country have voiced their concerns about CETA (TFPC 2012) and need your input to guide how they move forward in opposing the negative impacts the agreement could have.

CCPA (2012):

TFPC (2012):

Author: Will Hill. Community Food Programmer. Ecology Action Centre.


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