No time for PM to play hardball
So to be clear: it is not true that Justin Trudeau skipped a meeting of 11 world leaders planned to close the deal on a remodelled Trans Pacific Partnership, the only one to do so, or that by refusing to sign held up the agreement.
All that happened was that the prime minister declined to attend a meeting of the TPP 11 — it was 12, before the United States pulled out — on the grounds that, as he later explained, “we weren’t ready” to sign, and that as a result the agreement in principle that was to be announced at the meeting was put off for further negotiations.
Which is to say, the original story was largely correct, notwithstanding the efforts of the prime minister’s people to spin reporters after the fact. No one is suggesting he missed the meeting lightly, or by accident — well, no one but the Minister of International Trade, François-Philippe Champagne, who told reporters that the prime minister’s failure to attend was nothing more than a scheduling mix-up.
But an explanation is not a denial. The irritation of the other delegations — “the Canadians screwed everybody” was one of the kinder remarks — was widely reported, and if it is now maintained that Canada was never going to sign last week and everyone should have known that, it remains unclear how they could have been led to believe otherwise.
Diplomats generally do their utmost to make meetings between leaders as dull as possible: any disagreements are worked out ahead of time, behind closed doors, with a view to ensuring there are no unpleasant surprises on the day. Yet that does not appear to have been the case here.
That Trudeau told the conference’s chair, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, of his refusal in a private meeting just before the scheduled signing session would suggest the matter was in some doubt until the last minute. That the meeting ran long suggests this was hardly a formality, a matter of confirming what was already known, but was the subject of some negotiation.
But never mind. Let’s accept the official version that this was simply a determined prime minister playing hardball. No one doubts he had, and has, reasons for refusing to sign onto the deal — he didn’t just do so out of pique — but that’s hardly sufficient justification in itself. The question is: were they good reasons?
Needless to say the Prime Minister’s Office has been less than forthcoming about what his reasons were — and whatever might be said publicly, it may bear only a faint resemblance to reality: negotiations inevitably involve some degree of secrecy and doubletalk. But of the motives that have been floated, with varying degrees of official encouragement, none seems particularly creditable.
One suggestion is that it has something to do with China. The TPP was always one part trade deal, one part geopolitics, being designed as a counterweight to Chinese influence in the region. But the Trudeau government, it is abundantly clear, is embarked upon a strategy of cozying up to China, which it sees as the rising world power. Witness its seeming indifference to security concerns with regard to what remains a hostile power (see, for example, the Norsat satellite deal), its downplaying of human rights abuses (see its refusal to rule out a possible extradition treaty), above all its consuming eagerness for a bilateral free trade deal. Whether Canada should be tilting to China is debatable, but subordinating our broader trade and strategic interests to it would be inexcusable.
The second suggested explanation for the government’s reluctance is pressure from organized labour and business, notably in the auto sector, who view the prospect of opening Canada’s market to the TPP countries, notably Japan, with alarm. I’m sure they do — all the more reason to sign the agreement. The point of a free trade deal is to free trade, not to restrict it.
The third explanation is that it has something to do with NAFTA, currently also being renegotiated. And on the surface it might seem plausible: any concession we made at the TPP table might be used against us in the NAFTA talks. The problem with this theory is that concessions in trade talks usually aren’t concessions. Should we be reluctant to open up, say, supply management to trade with the Trans Pacific nations, because the United States is demanding the same? No, we should be eager to do so on both fronts — for our own consumers’ sake.
More broadly, it’s not clear what one necessarily has to do with the other. The most commonly cited example is autos. We are told that Canada can’t possibly agree to the TPP’s 45 per cent content rule, because NAFTA has a higher, 62.5 per cent content rule — and the Americans are pushing to raise it even higher. But the TPP rule applies, logically enough, to the TPP: to qualify for tariff-free trade between TPP members, a certain proportion of the content of any autos must be sourced from within the TPP. In the same way, NAFTA’s rules of origin apply to trade within NAFTA.
Sure, Mexico, like Canada, is a member of both. So what? The lower TPP content rule is a feature, not a bug — again, if freeing trade generally is your objective, rather than a Fortress North America that maintains free trade within its walls only at the expense of raising barriers to the outside world.
That may be Donald Trump’s endgame. It should be no part of ours.
The empty seat, foreground, for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, is seen during a meeting of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Danang, Vietnam, on Friday.