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Canada and EU free-trade deal clears major hurdle with deal on final text

OTTAWA - The Harper government's drive toward a free-trade deal with the European Union appears to be entering the final stages, with the announcement Tuesday that negotiators have concluded a text of the agreement.

The final wording comes after months of negotiation and disagreements over a wide range of issues that included investor protection from lawsuits as well as dairy quotas.

Trade Minister Ed Fast said he looks forward to a Canada-EU Summit in Ottawa next month, where the deal will be the centrepiece.

The agreement will "create jobs and economic opportunities for hard-working Canadians in every region of the country," Fast said in a 19-page written statement Tuesday that included endorsements from 125 business leaders and associations.

The provinces are now being consulted about the details; the deal will also go to the EU’s 28 countries for feedback.

Federal officials, speaking on background, said it could take up to two years to run the text through the ratification process, translation and a fine tuning of the legal language. That means it might not be in force before the next federal election, expected October 2015.

The Harper government has made the deal with Europe a keystone of its economic agenda, giving Canada favoured access to Europe's $17-trillion economy.

Officials gave no guarantees about the timeline, given it has taken nine months to reach this stage. Prime Minister Stephen Harper all but declared victory in Brussels last October when the two sides struck a deal in principle.

Once implemented, 98 per cent of the tariffs between the partners would drop to zero.

The precise wording of the agreement is not being made public immediately, but officials said the 1,500-page deal contains initiatives that will ease the flow of goods and people between Canada and Europe.

In addition to tariff removal, there are chapters on professional accreditation that will make it easier for people to work in either zone, and more opportunities in financial services and telecommunications.

A dispute-settlement mechanism is included, which officials said was an improvement over NAFTA because it will allow for open hearings and the early dismissal of frivolous claims.

Stuart Trew, spokesman for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, said in the absence of a publicly released text there are important questions that remain, ranging from content rules for transit purchases in Ontario and Quebec to "buy local" food provisions for municipalities, all of which remain unclear.

Without details, he said, it's tough to judge what the government has accomplished.

"These things are important to finding out if the deal is balanced and will benefit the Canadian economy," said Trew.

The government said the agreement will result in a 20 per cent boost in bilateral trade and an increase of $12 billion in the country's annual income — something officials say will create 80,000 jobs.

Simon Potter, a lawyer and trade expert who has served on several binational panels, said there are enough broad-stroke details available to form a strong impression.

"We know several things," he said in an interview Tuesday. "We're going to get rid of the many irritating and needless obstacles to trade, including technical obstacles at the border."

He said he is curious to see the fine print on the so-called improved dispute resolution mechanism, and to see how the Canada's energy sector will benefit, especially in light of the fact the Europeans are looking for new sources not tied to Russia.

The Council of Canadians said the government is declaring victory when there is still a long way to go.

"Harper has to hold his horses. This is very early in a complicated and long process," said Maude Barlow, national chairperson of the council.

"This hasn't even gone to the European Council for signature. The whole process could take years and there are many opportunities along the way for the deal to implode, as has happened before."

The council is opposed to the investor-state dispute settlement process, a clause that allow firms to sue governments.

"While we support trade with Europe, this deal is a no-go," said Barlow. "Companies will be given carte blanche to sue countries for laws they don't like."

The Canadian Press

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