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Critics urge provinces to hold public hearings on EU trade deals

Prime Minister Stephen Harper gives the thumbs up as he arrives on stage following his majority win in Calgary, Alta, Monday, May 2, 2011. The Harper government has made a successful Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with 28 European Union nations a key economic and political goal – it would constitute the only major free trade deal since NAFTA two decades ago.

ADRIAN WYLD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Critics of the free trade talks with Europe are urging provinces to ensure any negotiated deal gets a full public airing before it is formally signed.

The Trade Justice Network and Quebec-based Le Reseau quebecois sur l'integration continentale has sent premiers a letter in advance of their meeting in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., next week, saying the federal review mechanism is not sufficient.

The umbrella groups, which represent unions and civil society organizations, say provinces must step in because "the current federal government has rejected virtually every amendment proposed by opposition parties to every trade agreement that has come before Parliament for review."

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The Harper government has made a successful Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with 28 European Union nations a key economic and political goal – it would constitute the only major free trade deal since NAFTA two decades ago.

Unlike trade talks of the past, however, Canadian provinces have had to be directly involved in the process since some of the biggest issues – such as liberalized government procurement and public hydro-electricity tenders – fall under provincial jurisdiction.

As well, expected extensions in pharmaceutical patent protections will likely result in higher provincial health care costs.

With so much involved, the groups say the provinces must hold public hearings, adding there is precedent for doing so.

"If there is a difference between the CETA and these other trade and investment agreements it is surely that the Canada–EU agreement will have far greater impacts on provincial sovereignty, as well as on policy flexibility at all levels, including municipally," the letter notes.

"We therefore urge your government, and the Council of the Federation, to champion the idea of a democratic review of the CETA in between conclusion of the negotiations and a formal signing of the agreement."

Most analysts believe a deal could be signed in principle this fall, despite several missed deadlines.

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Officials on both sides of the Atlantic contend only a few difficult issues remain to be resolved, including expanded access for Canadian beef exports and European demands that Canada allow more imports of European dairy products.

But analysts also warn momentum could be stalled if the talks are not concluded quickly, particularly as the European Union is refocusing its attention on a deal with the more lucrative market in the United States.

Ottawa has maintained a deal could boost Canada's economy by $12-billion and create about 80,000 jobs, although critics say the benefits are exaggerated.

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