The Canadian government and the European Commission on Monday announced modifications to their controversial pending trade agreement, apparently intended to appease widespread criticism of the deal—but critics condemn the changes as nothing but "smoke and mirrors."
The trade deal known as the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) has drawn heated criticism for its investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) provisions, which allow investors to sue governments in private, specially-created courts for passing regulations that hurt corporate profits.
The modifications announced on Monday would alter the arbitration provisions to resemble something closer to what was optimistically described as a "permanent...professional court," in a recent Globe and Mail editorial arguing in favor of the changes.
"The government is presenting this reform to CETA as a 'fairer, more transparent, system,' but it still enshrines corporate rights and enables giant European corporations to sue the Canadian government. Tinkering with the dispute settlement process doesn’t change this fundamental flaw," said Garry Neil, executive director of social action organization the Council of Canadians, in a press statement.
In its original incarnation, the arbitration process would not have allowed appeals or treated decisions as precedent-setting. Notably, the new changes would still allow arbitrators to "moonlight as lawyers with the very same corporations that are launching these cases," Maude Barlow, national chairperson of the Council of Canadians, wrote in the Huffington Post earlier this month. There are also still no set limits on how much corporations are allowed to sue governments for.
Barlow wrote that the "reforms enshrine extra rights for foreign investors that everyone else—including domestic investors—don't have. They allow foreign corporations to circumvent a country's own courts, giving them special status to challenge laws that apply equally to everyone through a court system exclusively for their use."
Opposition to corporate-friendly trade deals has grown around the world in recent months, and these changes appear to have only incited further critique. Critics contend that the suggestion of more legitimacy is meant to help the EU Parliament pass the controversial deal, but the creation of a permanent private court solely for foreign investors makes the deal an even worse one for the public.
"A court system is not going to placate European activists or many parliamentarians," Barlow wrote. "Some are already calling it a PR stunt that does nothing but put a Good Housekeeping seal of approval on an already flawed system." She continued, "Not only do the proposed changes fail to address concerns about the investor-state provisions, they actually make them worse."
Nick Dearden, the director of U.K.-based social justice group Global Justice Now, joined the chorus of critics.
"Under the pretence of 'breaking from' the old corporate court system known as ISDS, the commission is actually trying to create a permanent court for big business," Dearden stated on Monday. "Far from preventing corporations bringing cases against the British government, this proposal makes it easier for them to do so. While pretending to iron out procedural problems, the commission has created a monster which will become a reality if this treaty goes through.
He continued: "There’s so much public pressure against these toxic trade deals. So the commission is desperately trying to mollify those critical MEPs who have been listening to the millions of people across Europe who have said no to CETA and no to this system of corporate courts. But MEPs need to see that the commission is simply trying to put lipstick onto a pig. We urge all MEPs and member states interested in defending democratic process aginst this corporate power grab to oppose CETA."