Corporate Insider Access to NAFTA Negotiations Draws Fire

One of the criticisms levied against TPP and CETA is the insider corporate access. NAFTA appears to be following this trend.

We’ve covered the debates surrounding many international trade agreements over the years. This includes the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership), CETA (Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement), and even TiSA (Trades in Services Agreement).

The trade agreements drew a lot of fire for many reasons. One of those reasons is that the agreements actually have little to do with trade and more to do with forcing laws that is favourable to major multi-national corporations. An example is how there are provisions in these agreements that further tightens down copyright laws including extending the length of copyright and instituting the failed three strikes law. The intellectual property provisions is one of the main reasons we covered these “trade” agreements in the first place.

In addition to this, another major source of contention that spreads across multiple interests is the issue of access. The negotiations themselves are held behind closed doors and away from public scrutiny. Supporters say that this is needed to allow the negotiations to take their natural course. That argument gets deflated very quickly when it comes to the access major multi-national corporations get. These multi-national corporations get access to the progress of negotiation and even receive drafts of the agreements so they can add their own input on where they feel the laws should go. Such situations infuriate lawmakers because even they don’t have this kind of preferential access.

As such, many of these trade agreements over the years draw fire because corporations can influence the negotiations, yet the general public is shut out. Increasing the controversy is the fact that leaks of many of these agreements occur and the provisions simply favour corporate interests at the expense of the public. These facts only add fuel to dissent to these agreements and spark protests all over the world.

So, with several instances of this happening, the question is, do international negotiators learn from this? Well, if this next story is anything to go by, it appears that the answer is “no”.

Carrying through on his promise, Donald Trump has forced the renegotiation of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement). Trump has said that if he doesn’t get a better deal for the US, then he would scrap the deal altogether. Since this initial election promise, Trump has gone on record multiple times to say that he is thinking of just scrapping the agreement altogether. Some suggest that this is a pressure tactic to get Canada and Mexico to agree to something less favourable.

While the unpredictable Trump is hampering negotiations, it seems negotiators themselves are adding complications to the negotiation process. It is being reported that there are insider trade “advisory” groups influencing the negotiations. From Michael Geist:

According to documents obtained under the Access to Information Act, as of last October, members of those groups had signed 116 confidentiality and non-disclosure agreements that pave the way for access to secret information about the status of the negotiations. Those stakeholders are in addition to the dozen NAFTA Advisory Council members, most of whom have also signed the non-disclosure documents.

The industry advisory groups cover some of the negotiations’ most contentious areas, including agriculture, intellectual property, services, auto, culture, and energy. There are also groups for newer trade issues such as women’s rights, labour, and Indigenous concerns. In all, the government supports at least 12 previously undisclosed advisory groups.

The size of each advisory group varies. The government documents indicate there are at least 14 members in the services group, 12 members in the auto group, and seven in the intellectual property group. The composition of the advisory groups remains a secret, though officials acknowledge that they consist primarily of businesses and their industry associations with few independent voices and no academic experts.

Officials maintain the NDAs are needed to allow for disclosure of the state of the talks and the negotiating positions of the U.S. and Mexico delegations. While revealing Canadian positions would not be subject to confidentiality restrictions, an agreement between the three countries allows for private disclosure of the dynamics of the negotiations and specific country positions. The advisory groups are not provided with copies of the draft text, but are given sufficiently detailed information to assess the likely impact of the proposed provisions.

Geist further comments that this two-tier approach damages the credibility of the negotiation process. This observation, of course, follows a long history of trade agreements being held in secrecy with access being granted to major multi-national corporations and top negotiators only.

If history repeats itself here, then NAFTA could go down in history as yet another trade agreement negotiated for the benefit of the social elite at the expense of everyone else – whether or not it was actually warranted based on the actual text.

From the Canadian perspective, this hurts the Trudeau Liberal brand because Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is constantly priding himself as being the transparent and open government. This sales pitch was effective because the Stephen Harper Conservative government before became notorious for being shut off to the public.

Now, it is being called into question because of the secrecy surrounding the NAFTA negotiations. The Trudeau government faces having a pretty sizable blemish on its record. At this stage, the Trudeau government can correct the situation because the Canadian media tends to shy away from anything that makes the Liberals look like they are pandering to the social elite. So, this does give them political room to manoeuvre out. The question is, will they take that opportunity or simply take the risk at looking like a closed off government like the Conservatives before them?

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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