THE GMB union is right to warn of a “corporate land grab” coming into force in less than a week as the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) between Canada and the EU takes effect.
Ceta has attracted less controversy than its US-EU counterpart TTIP, presumably because of Canada’s cuddlier image compared to that of the overbearing superpower to its south.
That image is not wholly deserved. Canada has participated in many of the illegal wars launched by the United States, such as those in Afghanistan and Libya.
Its record on labour law is not good — it has ratified just 34 of the 189 conventions of the International Labour Organisation and the Canadian Foundation for Labour Rights says that Canadians “have seen a serious erosion of … their right to organise into a union and engage in full and free collective bargaining” in recent decades. But the primary problem with Ceta does not lie there.
The treaty, like TTIP, is not about giving additional power to the Canadian or any other government. It is about empowering corporations at the expense of the public.
Chapter 8 of the treaty stops governments placing restrictions on what type of company is eligible to deliver what type of service — so a requirement that state-funded schools or hospitals are not run for profit would be deemed illegal.
The Trade Justice Movement has pointed to numerous anti-democratic clauses in the treaty: article 8.5 “bans domestic content requirements, so governments cannot direct international investment to benefit local communities, for example by requiring investors to make use of local suppliers;” article 8.13 “bans governments from limiting transfers of money and profits, which may make future attempts to limit the use of tax havens more difficult;” “non-discrimination provisions such as clause 19.4 make it difficult for governments to choose a publicly owned operator when deciding who should run a service.”
It’s capped off by an Investor Court System similar to the more infamous Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) mechanism, allowing companies to sue governments if their profits are put at risk.
We know how companies use these courts because they already exist under certain agreements. The Swedish energy giant Vattenfall has sued the German government for trying to impose environmental standards on a power plant on the River Elbe, and again for seeking to phase out the use of nuclear power.
This power to sue the government — ie the public — if a law might reduce profit puts a spoke in the wheel of any attempt to raise labour standards or the minimum wage, as well as any serious bid to address climate change.
Along with the competition law and restrictive conditions applied to public ownership and investment enshrined in the EU’s Lisbon Treaty, Ceta is part of a long line of international agreements which remove corporate behaviour from democratic control and limit our ability to decide on our government’s economic policies.
After years of cross-party consensus over screwing the public in this way, Labour has woken up: “We reject the idea of granting multinational corporations their own, separate, private judicial system through which they can sue host governments,” shadow international trade secretary Barry Gardiner has confirmed.
But unless Labour can take power by next Wednesday, Ceta will be in force and its provisions applicable to our country for 20 years — if we do not prepare ourselves to tear it up.
There is no breach of faith in annulling a treaty agreed behind closed doors which would never have won democratic assent from the British, Canadian or European public.
Labour must make it clear that it will do exactly that — and chart a path towards a future where politics serves the people, not big business.