Canada is a federal state with a division of power between the federal Government and the provinces, with some matters of jurisdiction at the authority of the federal Government, some at the provinces and some split between the two. The federal Government has authority for negotiating and signing trade agreements, but they involve the provinces very heavily in that process. Their approach for incorporating the provinces has been ad hoc rather than formalised in nature and it has also been evolving over a period of several decades. Part of the rationale for involving the provinces in the process of trade negotiations is because increasingly these trade agreements involve not just tariffs and other measures at the border, but the sorts of regulatory issues that can often be the responsibility of sub-national levels of government, such as the provinces. Those include issues such as government procurement, agriculture, environment, health, energy, labour, and investment.
In Canada now, many provinces have a trade team that interfaces with the federal Government to ensure that the interests of provinces are represented. Mechanisms are in place to consult with the provinces in real time, to discuss the progress of talks and to seek their inputs and their technical expertise. The primary mechanism for this in Canada is the Permanent Federal-Provincial-Territorial Trade Committee, known as the C-Trade Committee. This would be something similar to the Joint Ministerial Sub-Committee on International Trade that has been recommended by a Scottish Parliament Committee. The C-Trade Committee meets up to four times a year in face-to-face meetings. They also have supplementary teleconference calls as well.
There are similar consultative committees that exist on issue-specific areas. For example, there is a committee that deals specifically with agricultural trade issues and similar specialised committees for other trade issues. The idea is that discussions within these committees involve updates on progress in trade negotiations, trade disputes and other trade policy issues. This is supposed to provide a forum for ongoing dialogue that provides an important and permanent source of information on regional and sectoral interests and also ensures that the national negotiating position is one that is acceptable to all of the provinces as well as the federal Government.
In the case of the CETA (the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement) negotiations, the provinces played a particularly large role. They were involved in crafting the mandate for the negotiations; they provided inputs on their issues of interest and expertise; they had access to the confidential negotiating documents and they were extensively consulted throughout the negotiations. The provinces nominated their own chief negotiators to join the Canadian delegation. The C-Trade Committee mentioned above met before every stage in the negotiations, and it provided the key forum for agreeing on Canada’s negotiating position. The provinces were an integral part of deciding Canada’s negotiating position.
If the UK is to move to establishing a Joint Ministerial Sub-Committee on International Trade post-Brexit, a number of issues would need to be considered and nailed down in advance. These would include the frequency and regularity of meetings to give devolved government real and timely opportunities to contribute; the need to avoid top down decision-making and to ensure confidentiality and; critically, the need for close coordination at the level of government officials, not just between ministers.
This article draws on evidence given by Dr. Hopewell to the Westminster Scottish Affairs Committee inquiry into "Scotland and Brexit: Trade and Foreign Investment" on 5 June 2018.