Sergio Marchi is not the first Canadian politician to wage holy war against liberalized trade while in opposition, and then, having taken power, picked up a cudgel to knock a few more trade barriers down. Even Brian Mulroney, after all, thought free trade with the United States was a horrid notion in the days before he became prime minister. But Marchi remembers how Mulroney’s free-trade negotiations with Washington uncorked a dervish of nationalist forces— and as Canada’s current international trade minister, he has no interest in seeing it revived. So as Canadian negotiators embark on a final push to standardize rules on investment among 29 of the world’s leading economies by next May, Marchi is determined to make sure that every potential political thundercloud that gathers due to the deal blows over.
The fuss he is trying to shortcircuit concerns the ongoing negotiations over the highly bureaucratic-sounding Multilateral Agreement on Investment, a sweeping trade liberalization that would establish principles in governing and protecting foreign investments. Its details have been debated at the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development since 1995, and Marchi’s aides plunked down copies of a draft version of the text—square brackets, footnotes, annexes and all—at a parliamentary committee hearing in Ottawa last week. Marchi was there to lift the veil on the deal, he told the MPs, to prove that nothing insidious was going on in Paris. But though the agreement is far from done, the nationalist buzzards are already circling, he warned, “to attack free trade, globalization, open borders and the participation of foreign-owned companies in our economy.”
Nationalist opponents like the New Democratic Party obliged him, of course. NDP Leader Alexa McDonough has accused the government of sitting idly by while sovereignty over everything from labor and environmental standards to health care and Canadian culture is given away. And ubiquitous nationalist crusader Maude Barlow has just published a book painting the MAI as “anti-democratic,” an “assault on economic rights” and a “war on Canadian culture.”
Politically, the Liberals seem to have little to fear for now. Even opponents acknowledge that the MAI barely registers with voters as a concern, so they keep stabbing at its most sensitive areas, like cultural industries, which Ottawa insists will not be part of the deal. “We’ve been told that Ottawa is asking for an exemption on culture, but we’re worried that in the parry and thrust of 12th-hour negotiations, they will slip,” says Keith Kelly, national director
A new trade treaty angers nationalists
of the Canadian Conference of the Arts, a lobby group claiming to represent 200,000 artists. But even Kelly acknowledges that the changes in the world economy over the past decade make it difficult to rekindle the nationalist furor of the 1980s free-trade debate. “Normally, the cultural sector reacts emotionally to these kinds of agreements,” he says. “But it’s just not responsible to say that the whole Canadian way of life is about to be sacrificed on the altar of mercantilism. If we get hysterical over the MAI and say the sky is falling, we will simply become background static.”
Yet Kelly maintains there is no excuse for not holding a debate about the place of national cultures—or national labor and environmental standards for that matter—in a world apparently charging towards a single global market. And that is not simply a Canadian concern. The MAPs proposed ex-
emption for culture, for example, was tabled by the French government, which has always been at the forefront of resistance to the outward ripple of American cultural values. And Heritage Minister Sheila Copps will visit her ministerial counterparts in Rome and Brussels this week, part of ongoing Canadian diplomacy aimed at keeping culture out of the MAI. ‘We said very clearly at the start of negotiations that Canadian culture was off the table,” said
Marchi. “And we have a number of friends who share that position.”
But Marchi also acknowledged that the wording of the text is “fluid and evolving.” And as it stands, the proposed French exemption defines culture in such broad terms that Canadians could probably invoke it to restrict American investment in Canadian hockey teams, or the Germans to ward off foreign investment in their cherished forests. That open-ended definition will be subject to a full-court press of lesssentimental American and Japanese interests. And that has the ingredients to turn the MAI negotiations into the arena where opponents of globalization make their stand—the “last battle,” as Kelly calls it. Just the kind of storm Sergio Marchi would like to avoid.
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