What does post-NAFTA tell us about Trump’s trade agenda?

The ongoing post-NAFTA negotiations give insights into Trump’s trade agenda and what it might mean for the rest of the world.

Food and farming

One of the most important objectives on the corporate agenda is the imposition of US agribusiness methods. By now, the ‘chlorinated chicken’ and the the abysmal food production standards it symbolises are notorious.  Less well known is that NAFTA was responsible for driving one million Mexican farmers from the land.  Trump will try to use the negotiations to extend the free market in agricultural products, with dire consequences for Canadian farmers and food quality. But Canadian farmers have been fighting back, demanding that the government protect so called ‘supply management’ which regulates the prices farmers are paid for a range of agricultural products.

Intellectual property

The other major threat is in the extension of intellectual property rights. Trump is associated in the public mind more with the old extractive and manufacturing interests than the newer knowledge-intensive ones, but the Mexico deal includes a full chapter which, among other things:

  • extends the monopoly on new biological drugs to ten years
  • extends patent protection to cover surgical procedures
  • allows greater extensions to the length of patents through so called ‘patent term restoration’

These measures are likely to have dire effects on Mexican public health. Canada has historically been strong in resisting these kinds of demands, so there’s likely to be a major set-to here.

Other intellectual property measures are apparently listed on a US Government webpage, to which this correspondent doesn’t have access.  Fortunately, law professor Michael Geist does; and he obligingly provides us with a summary.  It is good to see that the agreement appears to stand up against for the attack on so called ‘copyright safe harbour’ social media sites which are currently under attack from the European Parliament. Far less welcome is a blatant and entirely predictable attempt to limit the ability of government agencies to choose free software, rather than proprietary equivalents.

The provisions, which aim to “limit governments’ ability to require disclosure of proprietary computer source code and algorithms, to better protect the competitiveness of digital suppliers”, when combined with rules of fair competition for government contracts, will almost certainly mean that agencies will not be able to choose software on the grounds that the source code is available to them, thus protecting the oligopoly of the tech giants..

Corporate courts

In key victory for campaigners, the deal with Mexico involves a reduction in the use of hated ISDS courts, with the possibility that they might disappear entirely in the Canadian deal.

Review

Another welcome feature is the inclusion of periodic reviews after 6 years and a 16 year sunset clause, after which the agreement must be re-ratified by all parties. This is a compromise on Trump’s proposal for a 5 year sunset clause and may be further watered down by Canada, but the principle of regular review is sound.

What about the workers?

The deal also contains some good news for some working people.

Mexico will legislate to give workers genuine trade union rights and to meet other international standards for workplace rights.

There will be US tariffs on cars made in Mexico that do not contain a sufficient proportion of US made parts, or are more than 60% manufactured by workers earning less that $16 and hour.

But Alexia Fernández Campbell, writing for Vox, sees difficulties:

The problem is that they seem impossible to enforce. It’s one thing to make trading partners adopt strict labor laws, but making sure they enforce those laws has proven much, much harder. Unless the White House comes up with a dramatically different plan to sanction Mexico if it doesn’t keep up its end of the deal, companies on both sides of the border will continue to reap all the benefits of free trade at the expense of their workers.

A mixed bag

Scott Sinclair of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives concludes:

A new pact could be more of a mixed bag than previous trade treaties. Certain elements such as the partial elimination of ISDS, more effective labour protections and potential rebalancing of North American auto production and jobs, could bring benefits to workers and citizens. Yet none of these are a sure thing, and some or all may prove to be a sham. U.S. corporate-driven agendas such as the attack on supply management, excessive intellectual property protections and the erosion of our distinctive cultural industries and policies are both familiar and possibly more extreme than in previous treaties. There will also undoubtedly be some landmines buried in the text, for example, in the nebulous, lobbyist-prone area of regulatory cooperation.

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