Shake Hands with the Devil

Trade expert Peter Clark is in Atlanta, Georgia, where he is monitoring the talks at the Trans Pacific Partnership Ministerial meeting.

Atlanta, Georgia – Ministers in Atlanta seem determined to close the unending negotiations on the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement by Saturday this week. The odds are now 60/40 that Ministers will not need to reconvene in November.There are still important issues to be resolved. Trade negotiations have become increasingly complicated and nothing is concluded until the very last minute. Negotiators must be satisfied that there is nothing else to be extracted.The Automotive deal is done, or at least essentially done, settling the key outstanding issue. With automotive rules of origin settled, pressure on other players to compromise will intensify.I expect the other differences will fall like dominoes. Then what happens?The Privy Council Office has opined that the government may participate in the negotiations as a matter of the Canadian interest. That is why Trade Minister Fast is here.So if there was something concluded this week, the Harper government could sign it and will sign it.But that is not the end of the story. Whatever may be signed before October 19, must be ratified. That process will likely continue well into 2016.After the negotiated text has been “scrubbed” and massaged into final shape – and, for Canada, translated into both official languages, the legislative process begins.“Scrubbing “is about clarifying. It is not negotiating. The scrubbing will not take as long with TPP as it did with CETA. For one thing, the real negotiating will be over. It was not with CETA - which was harvested prematurely. Keep in mind that, according to their fast track authority, the US needs to table a final text with Congress 60 days before it is signed.There will be a single line in Canada's implementing legislation stating that the agreement is approved. The implementing bill will also amend all legislation governing the particular activities addressed in the TPP text.If the Harper Government is re-elected with a majority, ratification would probably be a smoother process than if it was not. The TPP is their baby.This is not to say that the TPP would be scuttled by any other election result. Neither the Liberals nor the NDP have opposed the TPP, in principle.In a minority government situation – or a majority changeover in power – the Parliamentary Committee consideration would likely be more extensive, inclusive and open than has been the case in recent years.While neither the Liberals nor the NDP has objected in principle to the TPP, they may wish to fiddle with certain bothersome bits – or simply try to put their own stamp on it.But, it will not be easy for Canada to reopen the negotiations. This does not mean that the US will not try to secure additional concessions that may be demanded by Congress.Everything Canada might wish to take off the table could create an unravelling which will be resisted by the other eleven parties. So once a deal is signed, it will be difficult to deliver on demands for change.The US asserts a right to review and approve other parties' implementing legislation. It is a reciprocal right but size and leverage makes it a much meaningful in US hands than it is for other TPP members.In effect, it opens up the Agreement to renegotiation – a de jure reciprocal right which de facto is not.The TPP is a long term deal and it appears the Harper Government is prepared to accept some short term pain for possible long term gains.Canada is a trading nation. Canadians rely on a rules-based system. Rules are very important when being big is, in reality, more important than being right or wrong.Dispute settlement is much more a protection than a hindrance, as long as one is well-behaved.Many of the issues to be addressed in the TPP have already been addressed in implementing NAFTA and subsequent trade agreements. But many will be new and may well be problematic.So the process itself may be routine but the path to ratification may not be particularly smooth.The devil is in the details, and we will soon be asked to shake hands with the TPP devils.Peter Clark, president of Grey, Clark, Shih and Associates, is one of Canada's leading international trade strategists. His clients in Canada and around the world include governments, corporations and trade associations. He is a frequent media commentator and columnist.  Follow him on Twitter at @jpclark14

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