Prime Minister Stephen Harper can breathe a bit easier today as he makes plans to tout a historic Canada-Europe free-trade deal when he seeks re-election next year.
On Tuesday, the Conservative government announced that after lengthy negotiations that followed an agreement in principle struck last October, Canada and the European Union have now reached an agreement on the complete text for the deal.
Ever since Harper rushed to Brussels last fall to announce he had struck the initial deal, it appeared that last-minute talks on the details were bogged down.
In Canada, questions were raised over whether the prime minister had prematurely declared victory in the trade talks.
But now, with an agreement on the text complete and the negotiations finally over, Harper can proceed with a central part of his re-election strategy — to portray his government as a solid economic manager responsible for a historic trade deal that will create thousands of jobs.
However, the text for the agreement — it spans about 1,500 pages — has not been released, nor are government officials sure when Canadians will get to see it.
Canada’s provinces and territories have received the complete text and have been “comprehensively briefed on its contents,” said the federal government.
The EU, with a GDP of $17 trillion, is the world’s largest integrated economy and has more than 500 million consumers — a market that Canada hopes to break into in areas ranging from beef and automobiles to enhanced opportunities for professional services.
But when the agreement in principle was unveiled last year, it was also apparent that it could pose problems for some Canadian sectors, such as Canadian cheese producers who will see the EU get greater access to their supply-managed industry.
Canada also agreed to stronger intellectual property protection that will eventually increase the cost of pharmaceutical drugs for governments across the country, although the effects aren’t expected to be felt for a decade.
The government chose to make the announcement Tuesday through a brief news release and a teleconference in which a senior government official, who journalists could not name, spoke about the end of negotiations and answered questions.
No one from Harper’s cabinet appeared publicly to discuss the issue. When the Citizen asked for an on-the-record comment from International Trade Minister Ed Fast, his office instead pointed to an online video interview the minister did for officials in the Prime Minister’s Office.
In late September, Harper will host a Canada-EU summit in Canada — likely in Ottawa — and it’s possible that the text will be made public by then, although there are no assurances.
For now, officials say, the deal must be submitted to a Canada-EU internal legal review, then translated into about two dozen languages, before being ratified by the provincial legislatures and federal Parliament in Canada along with Europe’s 28 members.
The government said that process could take up to two more years to complete.
Last fall, in announcing the agreement in principle, Harper predicted it would be “vastly positive for the Canadian economy across the board.”
“It is not a perfect deal, because it’s a deal,” he said at the time. “But it is not just a good deal; it’s an excellent deal.”
The federal NDP released a statement Tuesday afternoon reacting to the government announcement, saying it welcomes what appears to be progress toward a deal.
“The NDP has long maintained that Canada should have deeper economic relations with the European Union — democratic countries with some of the highest environmental and labour standards in the world,” said the Official Opposition.
“The question Canadians are now asking is whether Conservatives negotiated a good deal for Canada? Unfortunately, Conservatives have kept Parliament and Canadians in the dark throughout the negotiations with talks conducted in secret and without any transparency.”
The NDP urged the government to publicly release the text of the deal and table it in Parliament before the agreement is signed.
“New Democrats have said all along that when it comes to trade deals, details matter. We will continue to take a responsible approach and wait until the full text is released, its contents are analyzed, and consultations have been completed with stakeholders — including business, labour, local and provincial governments, Aboriginal peoples, and others — to determine if the deal is, on balance, a good deal for Canada.”
Liberal trade critic Chrystia Freeland said her party welcomed the news that the text had been completed, particularly since it appeared negotiations had slowed down.
“We have been supportive of the deal from the start,” she said. “Canada is a small country. The world economy is huge. And if we want our middle class to be prosperous — which is the core of our agenda — having trade deals with the world is absolutely essential.”
But Freeland also said Canadians need to know more before they pass final judgment on the agreement.
“It’s important to say this is a great step, but also we really need to start seeing some details. At some point though we need to see what it is we’re actually supporting.”
The deal — known formally as the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) — has been in negotiations since 2009. It will eliminate 98 per cent of tariff lines in the EU and Canada on the first day it takes effect.
The government expects it will lead to reduced prices on a wide range of items coming from the EU, including clothing, perfumes, household products and automobiles such as BMWs and Mercedes.
The Council of Canadians, which has been critical of the trade deal, issued a statement Tuesday saying that Harper should not celebrate just yet.
“This is very early in a complicated and long process,” said Maude Barlow, chair of the organization.
“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.”
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