Harper in Brussels for finale of EU free trade talks
Oct 18, 2013 / 1:02 am
BRUSSELS - After four painstaking years of opaque negotiations, the lid will finally be peeled back Friday on Canada's contentious free trade negotiations with Europe.
Then, another potentially equally painful process begins â€” selling the agreement to Canada's provinces and territories and as well as the 28 member countries of the European Union.
The provinces, Europe's two-dozen-plus countries, plus insiders from agriculture, pharmaceuticals, the financial services, auto industries and other key business groups have circulated in a tightly-sealed tent, where their intertwined and often competing interests swirled and collided.
The results of that closed-door horse trading are to be laid bare in Brussels later Friday after Prime Minister Stephen Harper's plane touched here in the darkened hours of the early morning.
Later in the day, Harper will meet with European Commissioner Jose Manuel Barroso so they can publicly trumpet their breakthrough â€” an agreement in principle with the possible revelation of details of the comprehensive pact that aims to link the two economies.
As Harper arrived, negotiations were still taking place in Brussels, and it was not clear whether Friday's events would feature an actual signing ceremony.
The road to Friday's events was marked by give and take, which will leave a trail of winners and losers.
Some of the latter are already making noise. Canadian dairy farmers say they are "angered and disappointed" over a deal they call a "giveaway."
The breakthrough came when Canadian negotiators agreed to allow a doubling of the EU quota on cheese exports to Canada from four per cent of the total to eight. In return, Canada won greater access for Canadian beef and pork producers.
Canadian beef and pork farmers are smiling, because they see a potential increase of exports by up to $1.3 billion.
Dave Solverson of the Canadian Cattlemen's Association said is another breakthrough is that Canada and Europe will recognize each other's food safety regulations, diminishing the risk of non-tariff barriers being erected.
"If this deal is what we are led to believe it is, it is very good for beef," he said.
But there's potential for discontent among the provinces because the agreement is expected to require Canada to partially extend patent protection for brand-name pharmaceutical drugs, which would delay the introduction of cheaper generic drugs by up to two years.
Estimates say that could increase the total bill on drugs for provincial health plans and consumers by more than $1 billion a year.
"While there could be some benefits in making changes to Canadaâ€™s intellectual property regime for the innovation and life sciences sectors, British Columbia has repeatedly expressed concerns to the federal government that the changes the European Union are requesting will result in higher drug costs in Canada," said Teresa Wat, B.C.'s international trade minister.
The Ontario government has cautioned the federal government it will be seeking compensation on some sectors that will be adversely impacted by the agreement being unveiled Friday.
In a statement, Ontario Economic Development Minister Eric Hoskins said his government will support the agreement in principle but said he is concerned about the effects on the province's pharmaceutical, dairy, wine and spirits industries.
"We have raised these concerns with the federal government and we will make specific demands of the federal government to mitigate the impacts on these key Ontario economic sectors," he said.
Another key province, Quebec, said it is ready to issue its verdict but will wait until after the announcement to make its feelings known.
"I can only say the Quebec government wants a free trade agreement with the European Union, but the agreement has to be beneficial to Quebec, that includes the dairy producers. And that is what we are working on now. We are working with them," said Melanie Malenfant, spokesperson Finance Minister Nicolas Marceau.Quebec
Premier Pauline Marois is facing a political landmine with the deal that allows European cheese producers to more than double their shipments into Canada to over 31,000 tonnes.
For the time being, there's one big political winner in Canada â€” Harper.
Harper has a sought a big free trade deal to prove that he can deliver on a core tenet of his government's agenda to increase growth and prosperity. Small deals with the likes of Jordan, Peru, Colombia or Israel didn't cut it.
The Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), as the deal with Europe is known, is a cut above. It could increase Canada's gross domestic product by $12 billion and help create an additional 80,000 jobs.
The EU can also claim a political win with Friday's announcement. The deal with Canada shows the United States that a comprehensive pact is possible as Brussels and Washington embark on their talks.
Friday's announcement also allows Ottawa and Brussels to leave the better part of a year of bitter acrimony in the past.
EU officials have repeatedly blamed Canada for stalling progress towards a deal, saying that one was possible as early as this past February. Canada has maintained it won't be pushed into signing a deal that is bad for Canada.
Last month, John Manley, president of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, fired his own salvo on Canada's behalf, telling a European audience that that the EU's credibility could be damaged if the trade talks failed to yield a deal.
Last week, Manley joined business leaders on both sides of the Atlantic in urging Harper and Barroso to ink the deal.
For at least the last month, Harper and Barroso have shepherded the negotiations toward their endgame.
The need for that final, top-level political push became inevitable five weeks ago after Harper emerged from a 45-minute meeting with Barroso on the margins of the G20 summit in Russia.
Harper said that "significant gaps" remained between the two sides.
On Friday, the public will presumably be able see how the two leaders were able to narrow those gaps - and whether they can sell the compromise on both sides of the Atlantic.
â€” With files from Dirk Meissner, Julian Beltrame, Maria Babbage, Alex Panetta and Patrice Bergeron
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