Open up world trade talks

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Stuart Laidlaw, Toronto Star, 3 March 2019.

The European Union has taken aim at Canada's service sector at world trade talks, newly leaked documents reveal, demanding that banks and insurance companies be opened up to unrestricted foreign ownership, foreign companies be allowed to take over local water systems and the post office be opened up to foreign competition.

But don't feel singled out. The Europeans are making the same demands of other countries, with particular attention to prying open the markets of developing countries.

The current round of World Trade Organization talks, after all, has been dubbed the Development Round.

Last July, the EU submitted its requests to 109 members of the WTO for areas of their service economies it would like to see opened to free trade, including 84 developing countries. At the time, Europe claimed it was not asking that government services be opened to private competition.

But now, it seems, the EU is asking for exactly that and much more.

Take banking. While Canadians debate among themselves whether to let one of our banks merge with another, and what that might mean for various Liberal leadership aspirations, the Europeans have spent the better part of the past year knocking on the door demanding we let them come in and buy up the banks themselves.

Currently, Canada restricts how much a foreign company can own of a Canadian bank, how many foreigners can be on the board of directors, and how much business foreign banks can conduct in Canada. These restrictions are meant to ensure those making the financial decisions on who gets a business loan or who gets a mortgage have some sense of Canada's needs and wants.

Europe's response to this policy? "Remove the restrictions." That phrase, short and to the point, appears throughout the EU's demands to Canada, contained in the document, Request from the EC and its member states to Canada, leaked last week to the chagrin of the European Union.

The previously secret document one of 109 detailing Europe's demands of each country can now be seen by all on the Web site of the Ottawa-based social advocacy group, the Polaris Institute (http://www.polarisinstitute.org), which won't say how it got them.

The documents have been confirmed as accurate by EU trade commissioner Pascal Lamy, and are causing a stir around the globe. The Australian Financial Review wrote in a headline that, "EU wants slice of our services."

In the United States, Minnesota Senator Sandra Pappas, a Democrat, told Reuters news service, "We make the laws, we don't want them undone in a global trade agreement few of us have even heard about."

The main issue south of the border has been Europe's demand that the postal service be opened to competition, including foreign competition. Americans are particularly proud of their postal service. It was founded by Benjamin Franklin, and has come to be seen as part of their heritage.

But the American postal service isn't the only one being targeted. So is Australia's. So is Canada's.

The Europeans are also demanding we open up our energy sector to full foreign investment and competition, and that we break "monopolies" on car insurance in provinces such as Manitoba where it is run by the province, and that municipal water and sewage services be opened to foreign companies wanting to privatize these essential services.

Through the hundreds of pages of demands to 109 countries, one thing becomes clear. There is a lot on the table at the world trade talks, which are being held behind closed doors in Geneva. Far more than most Canadians realize.

And far more, until the documents were released, than even those at the table realized.

That's because the EU never gave all 109 countries complete copies of its demands. Instead, it only gave them the specific requests for their own countries. Negotiators, then, had no idea what the Europeans were demanding of other countries.

That makes it extremely difficult to form alliances. Sure, negotiators could share information among themselves, but you never get all the details you might want that way.

With the release of these documents, Canada can now see in full detail where other countries are being targeted. It can assess all 109 demand lists and form alliances with other countries to protect their services if they agree to help protect ours.

This will become especially important as pressure builds on Canada to open its treasured health care, education and other social services to free trade and foreign competition.

In the spirit of transparency, Canada should also release its full list of demands for all to see.

There is much at stake at these talks, as the European documents show.

Ottawa owes it to Canadians to be upfront and open about what is happening, and how our interests will be protected.

Stuart Laidlaw is a member of the Star's editorial board.


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