ST. PETERSBURG, Russia – Prime Minister Stephen Harper says significant gaps remain on clinching Canada’s elusive free-trade deal with Europe.
Harper expressed that view after his 45-minute meeting Friday with European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso on the margins of the G20 summit in Russia.
Harper had intended to give the Europeans a friendly but firm nudge on the four-year-old talks. But as he made clear, a deal is not imminent.
“At the one level, we’re very close on a number of issues, but I do have to say that based on the meeting we had today and some recent discussions, we still have some very significant gaps that have not been bridged,” Harper said before departing for Ottawa.
“And that is the reality of the situation.”
A comprehensive trade agreement between Canada and the European Union has been stalled for much of this year, and the slow pace has frustrated the Conservative government.
European officials also express frustration, and have attempted to break the impasse by publicly suggesting Canada is to blame for dragging out the talks.
Both sides have said major gaps remain in agriculture, intellectual property rules on drug patents and provincial procurement.
Leaked documents previously obtained by The Canadian Press describe how procurement would be liberalized to allow European firms access to Ontario and Quebec’s public hydro sectors, and freedom to bid on provincial and municipal tendering, as well as on universities, schools and hospital contracts.
Harper didn’t give specifics, but he suggested the provinces are not comfortable with the current state of play.
“As I’ve said all along, we want to see a deal. … This would first of all be the biggest trade deal in Canadian history if we could get it done,” he said.
“But we’ve got to get it done in a way that, in our opinion, and in the opinion of all the provinces, which are our partners in this, serve the broader interests of Canadians and the Canadian economy.
“And we are not there as of now.”
Harper’s tone contrasted with an assessment a day earlier in Brussels when the EU’s rapporteur on the negotiations briefed a committee of the European Parliament.
Peter Stastny said he was more optimistic than he was several months ago.
He characterized the distance that remained in agriculture, intellectual property and provincial procurements as “minor issues that should be and could be solved.”