Free Trade in the Americas and the Role of Parliamentarians

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In December 2000 the Committee on Institutions of the National Assembly tabled a report entitled Quebec and the Free-Trade Area of the Americas: Political and Socioeconomic Effects. Among other things it called for parliamentary representation in any free trade agreement among nations of the western hemisphere. This article summarizes the main points in that report. It is a revised version of his presentation to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade on April 5, 2001.

I would like to begin with a few words about the Committee on Institutions of the National Assembly. It is one of ten standing committees and is composed of twelve members from all political parties in the National Assembly. The committee's terms of reference include the fields of justice, public security, the Constitution and international affairs, relations with aboriginal people, youth, elections and the regulation of professional bodies, as well as everything concerning the Executive Council.

Like all Quebec committees it has the power of initiative which means that, with the consent of a majority of members of each party, it may initiate examination of subjects that it deems to be important in keeping with its duties. All the committee members agreed that it was urgent and necessary to study this issue. I must point out that the work done as part of this exercise was approached in a completely non-partisan manner. The report produced by the committee was unanimous, and I think that this is a fundamental consideration when judging the significance of the report and the soundness of its recommendations.

We began this study in January 2000 and then in June we launched a far-ranging public consultation. We innovated by calling for public briefs in the traditional manner, namely through notices in newspapers, but also by allowing our fellow citizens to express their views and opinions by means of the Internet. I believe it is important, for the sake of democracy, to use and to take advantage of this opportunity to reach even more people and obtain their input. In many cases, we are reaching citizens who are not necessarily represented within large organizations.

In response to our invitation, we received 41 briefs, collected 25 opinions from the Internet and met with 36 people and groups. The report was tabled in December and, in the committee's view, is only an initial step.

The plan for hemispheric integration has four main components: first, preserving and strengthening democracy; second, economic integration and free trade; third, eradicating poverty and discrimination; four, sustainable development and the environment.

We therefore clearly realize that this is a huge, comprehensive undertaking that encompasses not only economic and financial issues, but political, social and democratic considerations as well.

However, we must keep in mind that the Free Trade Area of the Americas is the only component of this huge initiative of hemispheric integration that seems to be moving ahead as was more or less planned. It is only one of the components, but, clearly, it is the one that has made the most progress. Committee members were concerned that the other three major components of this huge undertaking were dragging behind.

As we all know, it is an ambitious undertaking. Let me recall the main features of the Free Trade-Area of the Americas: an agreement that could be concluded as early as 2003 and implemented as early as 2005; 800 million consumers; a total GDP of $10,000 billion annually, a single large market; an incomparable variety of economies and people participating. Therefore, as parliamentarians, we have no choice but to look very carefully at such initiatives, through the lenses of democracy, the economy, the environment, social policies, culture and many others.

Let me go directly to our recommendations and conclusions. …