Just ahead of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, it was announced that Canada and Columbia had signed a trade agreement. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, who was attending the meetings as an observer, took the opportunity to call upon the U.S. Congress to ratify the U.S.-Colombian Free Trade Agreement (FTA). The agreement remains in limbo, with the Democrats still delaying a vote on the accord, citing human rights violations stemming from violence perpetrated against labour activist. Hundreds of trade unionists have been murdered in Colombia since Uribe became president. It is unlikely that a vote will take place before Barack Obama takes office. Along with the deal with Colombia, Canada also needs to ratify trade agreements with Peru and Jordan. Harper has vowed to pursue new trade initiatives with Asia and the Americas, as well as deeper economic integration with the European Union (EU).
Canada and Colombia also reached agreements on labour and environmental protections, although it remains unclear on just exactly how they will be enforced. Harper believes that cutting trade barriers is now even more important than ever in light of the current economic uncertainty. Proponents of the deal say that it will facilitate bilateral trade between the two countries, giving greater access to Canadian exports. In March, the Canadian Labour Congress released a report that stated that Canada, pursuing a trade agreement with Colombia, was a gift to President George Bush. At the time, it was hoped that this move would help in getting the stalled U.S.-Colombia FTA passed through Congress. It is expected that Harper will speed the trade agreement through Parliament. In the end, most trade deals have failed to live up to the hype and all the promised benefits at the expense of labour, safety, health, and environmental rights. Such an agreement could also be used to expand NAFTA and the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) to the region.
In the past, Canada has been criticized by some of its own business leaders for not more aggressively pursuing bilateral liberalization initiatives. There is a sense among such circles that this might have hurt Canadian global competitiveness and its overall economy. Under Harper, bilateral trade initiatives have accelerated, and this is also partly due to the failure of the WTO negotiations. Harper has promised to place more focus on the Americas, and has created a new junior cabinet position dedicated to carrying out his strategy of further strengthening bilateral cooperation in the hemisphere. Some argue that bilateral trade deals create obstacles to regional integration. In reality, if you have enough bilateral and regional deals, it could serve to facilitate multilateral agreements. Costa Rica recently ended a four year battle and approved CAFTA. In September, Bush, along with the leaders of 11 Western Hemispheric countries, met and launched the ‘Pathways to Prosperity in the Americas’ initiative. Some have suggested that this might have signaled the rebirth of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).
Before the SPP Leader Summit in New Orleans, it was reported that there might be a move to push Mexico out of the process. Former Canadian ambassador to the U.S., Derek Burney, said, “Attempts to ‘triangulate’ in recent years, by bringing in Mexico, have little substance and allowed attention to be diverted from more pressing bilateral concerns.” This seems to echo the same sentiments of a recent article by John Ibbitson that appeared in the Globe and Mail. He believes that Harper should pursue a new agreement with the U.S. and, “Mexico, unfortunately, should not be part of this conversation-it’s not far enough along. But just as the European Union assists eastern European countries until they are ready for admission, Canada and the U.S. could work with Mexico until it’s ready to join.” There is a perception that SPP agenda has stalled, but other avenues are being used to advance deeper integration and plans for a North American Union. There are some in Canada who wish to further renew bilateral initiatives with the U.S., while others feel that the right course of action is to further lessen dependency on the American economy.
In July, the EU Commission proposed a new EU-Mexican Strategic Partnership in an effort to strengthen political coordination. It would also be used to advance security, environmental, energy, and economic bilateralism. The EU has also expressed interest in moving forward with trade talks with Colombia and other Latin American countries. It came out during the Canadian federal election in October that the EU and Canada were set to engage in negotiations for deeper economic integration. A trade agreement with the EU could be used as the model for future bilateral deals. It could also serve as an opportunity to update NAFTA and be used to foster a new spirit of continental, regional, and global trade bilateralism and cooperation. Under the guise of free trade, access to strategic territory and natural resources is being achieved, and Canadian trade deals could be used to further promote U.S interests around the globe.
With Obama as president, some fear that it might signal a new era of American protectionism that could spread. My opinion is quite the opposite, as I believe that there will be a renewed bilateral commitment on his part. With the global economy further struggling, pressure is already mounting for him to ratify the U.S.-Colombia FTA when he becomes president. Many believe that this will send a positive message to the rest of the world. It will be interesting to see if he follows through on promises to renegotiate NAFTA. Globalization and free trade are being hailed as ways to boast the world’s economic woes, despite the fact that this ideology has created many other problems in the process. With the recent signing of the Canadian-Colombia trade agreement, it appears as if Canada will continue to be used to advance trade in the continent, the region, and around the globe.