HANGZHOU, China – Concerns about the impact of protectionist sentiments on key Canadian trade talks led senior government members to dedicate some of their scarce face time to the issue Sunday with G20 peers.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau himself was expected to discuss the subject when he met with European leaders on the margins of the G20 leaders’ summit in China, International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland said.
Freeland noted that growing movements against trade liberalization have complicated always-delicate talks with the United States on softwood lumber.
These attitudes, she added, have also affected Canada’s push to sign a free trade deal with the European Union, also known as CETA.
“The prime minister is using his time here – it’s very valuable, lots of European countries (are) of course members of the G20 – to push for CETA to get it over the finish line,” said Freeland, who travelled to China with Trudeau for the gathering of the world’s biggest economies.
Trudeau’s office said he had a brief “pull aside” chat with to discuss CETA with European Council president Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president.
Growing anti-trade sentiments on both sides of Atlantic are certainly a factor in Ottawa’s dealings with U.S. and Europe, Freeland said.
She was encouraged by Juncker’s remarks about CETA on Sunday at the summit in Hangzhou.
He called it the “best and most-progressive agreement” the European Union had ever negotiated and said it deserved the full support of member states and rapid ratification.
Canada and the EU have committed to signing the deal this year and ratification in 2017.
Still, Ottawa isn’t taking anything for granted, Freeland said.
“There is strong support, but it is going to be very important to work hard with Europeans to talk about the progressive elements in this deal,” she said.
“This is a deal that will be very important for Canada and we’re just working very, very hard, assuming nothing.”
A senior government source said Ottawa is aware of constraints in countries like Austria and Germany.
The government will be doing its best to bring some centre and centre-left groups on side, both publicly and privately, said the source, who described the effort as a real challenge.
The source spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the issue.
Trade Lawyer Larry Herman, of Herman and Associates, said in an email Sunday that pockets of CETA opposition in various countries “seem to be gaining strength.”
“Since the deal has been languishing for three years now, some injection of progress is critical,” Herman said.
Herman said softwood talks have been further complicated by the fact the existing agreement expires Oct. 15 – right in the middle of the U.S. election campaign.
He believes Ottawa should work towards an extension until 2017, because finalizing a deal in the campaign would become politically charged.
Canada’s chief negotiator in the softwood talks recently said the two sides remain far apart on several key issues.
Freeland said she discussed the issue Sunday in Hangzhou with U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman and expects to meet him again in about 10 days. She said the sides are engaged in detailed negotiations.
“The level of protectionist rhetoric right now in the United States during the election campaign is making this difficult negotiation even tougher …” Freeland said. “I really believe in hoping for the best and preparing for the worst.”
Trudeau, who took part in the official opening events Sunday with fellow G20 leaders, has also used the summit as a way to convey his message about the need for more trade.
He warned a crowd at a G20-related event Saturday that isolationism does nothing to create economic growth.
Earlier Sunday, Trudeau held a bilateral meeting with President Idriss Deby Itno of Chad, chair of the African Union.
The leaders discussed deepening their countries’ ties, security issues, women’s rights and Canada’s interest in engaging more in Africa, said a statement released by Trudeau’s office.