In current climate, selling trade deals means selling the social benefits

The latest trend in Canadian trade negotiations has little to do with cutting tariffs and opening up new markets. From labour rights to gender equality, progressive social policies are becoming key to overcoming political resistance.

Canada pushing new trend in trade negotiations: translating progressive social policy into economic growth

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right, paid tribute Friday to Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel for his work in overcoming regional opposition to the Canada-EU free trade deal. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

If someone took a sip of Belgian brew Hoegaarden every time Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel used the word "progressive" to describe Canada's trade deal with the European Union Friday, that glass would have been drained by the end of their press conference.

After a meeting on Parliament HIll, Trudeau paid tribute to the work Michel did to pull the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement out of the fire last October.

There will always be people who have concerns about freer trade, Trudeau said in French, but CETA is a — wait for it — "progressive" trade deal anchored in shared values, he said. Ratifying it in the face of a wave of isolationism and protectionism was "a step forward."

Describing what nearly sunk CETA last fall as "concerns" may be an understatement. Thousands of people, organized by labour unions and civil society groups amplifying a range of fears about trade liberalization with North America, had hit the streets of Europe.

Socialists and other left-leaning political parties across Europe were under pressure to stop the deal. Only some past-midnight dealmaking saw a postponed signing ceremony rescheduled, after then-trade minister ChrystiaFreelandfelt forced to walk away from regional demands in Belgium to rewrite a deal the EU had said was done.

When we talk about inclusive growth, it can't just be a phrase that we're throwing around. It has to be meaningful for people- Labour Minister Patty  Hajdu

The interpretative declaration that was added to quell European fears had little to do with CETA's economic benefits or the typical goals of trade deals, like cutting tariffs or opening new markets. It talked about labour rights, food safety and environmental protections — more aligned with the role of governments to supervise business, not enable it.

It was deemed necessary to make sure CETA survived its ratification vote in the European Parliament. And the persuasion isn't over: three dozen ratification votes remain in regional and federal legislatures across Europe.

Thousands of protestors, like these ones in Berlin last September, called on European governments to stop Canada's free trade agreement, as well as the EU's trade talks with the U.S. (Markus Schreiber/Associated Press)

CETA was the Trudeau government's first, but not last, lesson in how to reassure and overcome the opponents of trade policy. 

It may serve it well across its entire trade agenda — not just implementing CETA, but negotiating more deals with the countries that remain interested in the Trans-Pacific Partnership or South America's Mercosur bloc.

'Everybody has to benefit'

"International agreements are becoming far more inclusive of social issues and environmental issues and rights," Labour Minister Patty Hajdu told CBC News from Berlin Friday. "It's something Canada is pushing as a trend."

The minister touted Canada's ratification this week of the International Labour Organization's convention on collective bargaining, the eighth and final "fundamental" ILO convention Europeans insisted Canada ratify before CETA takes effect.

Labour Minister Patty Hajdu was in Geneva Wednesday for Canada's official ratification of the International Labour Organization's convention on collective bargaining. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

Hajdu wouldn't speak to why the previous Conservative government hadn't ratified the convention, saying it was a surprise to her when she became labour minister that it wasn't done yet.

On the same day Canada ratified that ILO convention, a Liberal bill to restore unions' bargaining certification process and repeal financial disclosure rules brought in by the previous Conservative government passed its final vote in the Senate.

"Trade deals are becoming more and more progressive, and as part of that, there has been a substantial focus on labour," Hajdu said. Newer trade agreements often include chapters on workers' rights, for example.

"What we've seen, as trade agreements have progressed and matured, there's a recognition by countries that everybody has to benefit and there has to be some accountability around that," she said.

"When we talk about inclusive growth, it can't just be a phrase that we're throwing around. It has to be meaningful for people."

Embracing union priorities helped elect Liberals in 2015. They'll need to keep these votes come 2019.

"I think we're coming closer to a place where we can all agree that including aspects of social growth, making sure that we have equity built in ... these are all the kinds of things that yes, the labour movement has fought for, but we're starting to see have a significant influence in the business community as well," the minister said. 

'Feminist approach'

Earlier this month, Trudeau heralded Canada's updated free trade agreement with Chile as "a big moment" for progressive trade.

The rewrite didn't cut more tariffs or open markets for new products. The news release didn't project a dime in additional economic benefits.

Instead, it spoke of a first-of-its-kind chapter on "trade and gender," to "ensure economic growth benefits everyone."

Standing beside Chile's president, Michelle BacheletTrudeau said shared policies lead to a "fairer, more inclusive world."

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, right, met with Justin Trudeau in Ottawa on June 5. The pair announced a 20-year old bilateral trade agreement between their countries had been updated to include a chapter on "trade and gender." (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

A new "trade and gender committee" will advance women's participation in the economy, part of Canada's "feminist approach" to foreign policy.

The rewrite also enshrined more corporate social responsibility standards than were common when the Chile deal was drafted 20 years ago.

Much like the interpretative declaration Canada agreed to graft on to CETA, the new agreement with Chile reaffirms a government's right to regulate industries to enforce things like labour or environmental standards, provided it does so transparently.

Politics 'extremely daunting'

"This is how we advance our progressive trade agenda in the world and how we make trade real for Canadian workers and their families," International Trade minister François-Philippe Champagne said about the Chile deal update.

"Making it real" may be more difficult in a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement later this year.

Early signals from the Trump administration suggest these talks will be dominated by commercial agendas. But strengthening labour, intellectual property and environmental protection measures seems likely too.

Making sure NAFTA reflects progressive values might help sell its merits to Canadian voters cool — if not outright hostile — to U.S. President Donald Trump.

As former prime minister Brian Mulroney, who oversaw the original NAFTA negotiation, told an Ottawa audience Friday: "The politics of free trade were always extremely daunting."

About the Author

Janyce McGregor

Parliamentary Bureau

Janyce McGregor has covered Canadian politics for CBC News since 2001. Send news tips to:


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