Free trade deal negotiations prompt familiar debate south of the border

It is a familiar Canadian trade argument with a distinct American twang.

In January, Michigan Republican congressman Dave Camp, Republican senator Orin Hatch from Utah and Montana Democratic senator Max Baucus teamed up to introduce into Congress legislation authorizing ‘fast track’ treatment of any trade deal legislation introduced by the government.

The essence of “fast track” is that Congress must consider any trade deal as a whole and vote to approve or reject it. After months or years of negotiation to reach a compromise, congressmen and senators would not be able to amend a specific clause that a U.S. legislator considers bad for his state or district.

To do so would send the entire deal back to the negotiators and fast track proponents argue that no country would sign an agreement with the U.S. if the deal could be cherry-picked by Congress.

So legislators should approve it or reject it but not amend it.

Trade proponents such as the American Farm Bureau insist fast track is essential.

“The trade promotion authority bill will restore the president’s authority to negotiate trade deals that Congress can pass or reject but cannot amend,” the AFB said when the legislation was introduced. “Without it, other countries are reluctant to finalize negotiations with the United States for fear that any hard-won trade agreement could be undone (by Congress).”

At almost the same time, the U.S. Citizens Trade Campaign issued a plea to its members to pressure their politicians to kill the bill, arguing it is undemocratic and corporate-weighted.

With the negotiations on deals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and U.S.- European Union free trade held in secret but with corporate representatives being consulted on texts and how they would be affected, it excludes citizen interests, argued the trade-skeptic citizens’ group.

“Together, we can defeat this outdated Nixon-era policymaking process,” the group told supporters in mid-January.

Fast-track approval is likely but in the dysfunctional U.S. political system, anything is possible.

However, a Canadian watching this debate can’t help but see the parallels, even though Parliament does not typically try to tinker with details of trade agreements.

When the Canada-European Union trade deal was announced late last year and Canada joined the TPP talks, trade advocates, which included exporting agricultural groups, were in favour and briefed along the way.

At World Trade Organization talks, industry groups regularly are briefed about developments.

Yet self-designated civil society groups including the Council of Canadians, aboriginal groups and trade-skeptics typically are not.

At recent WTO talks in Bali, dissidents could get inside the building as non-governmental organizations but just as often were outside protesting.

Industry leaders, while also accredited as NGO representatives, had far better access to negotiation insiders.

It is human nature that negotiators who spend their lives trying to craft deals would rather talk to people who support their efforts than people who believe they are doing the devil’s work.

That tension between industry insider status and dissident outsider status is a legitimate part of the debate and undoubtedly will continue on both sides of the 49th Parallel.

So far, though, the pro-trade side of the argument has been winning on both sides of the border.

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