European Union says Harper sounding conciliatory on stalled free-trade talks

OTTAWA – Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s office is sounding more “conciliatory” about an imminent resolution to the continent’s long-stalled free trade talks with Canada, a senior European Union official said Thursday.

Peter Stastny, the union’s rapporteur on the Canada-Europe negotiations, said he is more optimistic than he was several months ago.

“The good news is, that I keep hearing, more and more a kind of conciliatory and optimistic rhetoric, particularly from the office of Prime Minister Harper of Canada,” Stastny said Thursday in a briefing to the European Parliament’s international trade committee.

“I’m probably more optimistic now than I was before. It could happen any time soon.”

He said that is because Harper’s office is playing down the gaps that remain on the main unresolved obstacles to a deal, including access for Canadian pork and beef, drug patents and provincial procurements.

“They are minor issues that should be and could be solved,” Stastny said.

“The rhetoric I keep hearing, from the EU, but mostly from Canada and (the) prime minister’s office, seems to minimize these issues, and they see the end of a tunnel that hopefully will come very … soon.”

Despite that assessment, Stastny lamented that two big deadlines have been missed in wrapping up negotiations for the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), which Canada and Europe started four years ago.

The two sides want a deal in time for the European Parliament to ratify it by next year. That would get it in before the union becomes distracted by separate talks with the United States, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

“It’s getting overloaded,” Stastny said. “And we all could benefit, the (European) commission could benefit if the CETA would be concluded before the TTIPs begin.”

The warning echoed previous ones by the Europeans that the Canadian talks could be shuffled to the back burner once the negotiations with the U.S. begin in earnest.

The U.S. and Europe formally opened discussions in July.

In August, the EU largely shut down for the summer, stalling the Canadian talks.

Trade Minister Ed Fast said last month that “a little flexibility” was needed from both sides when talks resume sometime this month.

Fast’s office did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday.

In July, the now-departed EU ambassador to Canada, Matthias Brinkmann, blamed Ottawa for the logjam, saying a deal was possible in February. The comment was widely viewed as the latest in a series of European attempts to pressure Canada to reach a deal.

Fast later told The Canadian Press that what Brinkmann proposed was “not in Canada’s interest.”

Stastny said he received his own briefing from European negotiators earlier this summer.

“There was not too many surprises … it’s kind of bittersweet,” he said.

“It’s moving along. It’s moving along gradually.”

Stastny’s assessment Thursday appeared more upbeat than the one he gave to a delegation of Canadian parliamentarians visiting Brussels in April.

Then he expressed frustration at the pace of the talks, saying the delay was not a good signal to be sending in tough economic times.