Trade agreements have risen in the public consciousness as the EU has embarked on a series of 'new generation' agreements with our trading partners. The first of these new agreements to be concluded was with Canada in summer 2014 - shortly after the last European elections. It is yet to come before MEPs for ratification, as the controversy around investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) engulfed not only the EU-US TTIP negotiations but also the EU-Canadian Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement deal, commonly known as CETA.
As Labour's European spokesperson on relations with the Americas, I have been following and scrutinising both negotiations closely to continue this I joined my fellow MEPs on a trade mission to Ottawa and Montreal from 20-23 March. I boarded the plane for Ottawa with a little bit of trepidation and excitement. I was selected to take part in this trade delegation over a year ago and it had been postponed several times (to the point where I thought it might not happen) but now I was on my way.
Why with trepidation? For two reasons, I have been a vocal critic of the impact of new trade deals on public services and on private arbitration tribunals or investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS), I knew that I would be in a minority in the delegation on many issues. I wondered what this would be like. Secondly, because our delegation included French Front National leader Marine Le Pen - I wasn't looking forward to spending any time with her. Luckily for me - I found equivalent concerns about ISDS and the capacity of governments to regulate amongst Canadian civil society and left-wing politicians and Marine Le Pen only showed up to 1 hour of our meetings!
Ahead of the delegation, anticipation rose as EU and Canadian negotiations concluded an unconventional 'scrubbing' of the text in February - normally a legal formality, but which has brought a series of changes to the proposed ISDS in CETA. Despite being negotiated by the previous Conservative government, the new Liberal government and trade minister Chrystia Freeland are working hard to seal the deal - our meeting with her and the chief negotiator was a charm offensive. There is broad cross-party support for CETA amongst Canadian politicians, although the New Democratic Party, (more commonly known as the NDP), are more critical with similar concerns as Labour MEPs about public services and ISDS or the new Investment Court System.
As expected, our meetings with civil society representatives, labour union leaders, and business representatives raised many of the same hopes and concerns we hear from their European counterparts. Concerns about rising inequality, public services, corporate power over regulation and labour rights. Hopes about increased economic integration, regulatory convergence, export-led growth and new market opportunities. Little did we know that our mission would be overshadowed by events back in Europe as Brussels was attacked. We were shown touching solidarity by all Canadians we met and reminded at every stage of the shared values we hold dear - of open societies, open markets and social safety nets.
What was meant to be a classic trade delegation became quite a different experience. Shortly, we will start the process of formally scrutinising the CETA text ahead of our vote at the turn of the year to accept or reject it, and it's likely that the arguments for and against made in Ottawa and Montreal will be heard louder inside the European Parliament.