Canada-EU trade: Any day now

Why is it taking so long? Paul Wells explains


After a while my nonstop constant pessimism over trade negotiations with Europe became contagious. (The first of those four links takes you to an article from 2009. I first expressed skepticism that Canada and the EU would ever conclude a trade deal at an Ottawa conference in the spring of 2008.) IP expert Michael Geist succumbed in March. Today he offers a list of media claims of the negotiations’ imminent success. Geist’s list is 39 stories long, begins in 2010, and should be emailed to the next columnist who claims a deal is imminent. One did yesterday on one of the Sunday chat shows; the penalty for being wrong yet again is, of course, zero.

There’s still a good chance that at some point Canada and the EU will sign some kind of agreement that increases bilateral access for market access, investment protection, public-sector procurement, patent protection and all that other good stuff. On that day, I’ll have been wrong once, while all my friends who’ve predicted a deal every several weeks for three years like Charlie Brown kicking at Lucy’s ball will be vindicated. But why’s it taking so long? A short list of reasons:

• Stephen Harper preferred to low-bridge the negotiations rather than make them the centrepiece of a highly public show of brinksmanship, as Brian Mulroney did with Canada-US trade in the ’80s. Mulroney used public psychodramas between negotiators to strengthen his hand against the Americans (or so he hoped) and then turned the 1988 election into a referendum on the result. Harper has preferred that almost nobody know negotiations were happening. He hasn’t been secretive — my honest impression is that stakeholder groups have been given periodic and frank briefings on the process — but he has preferred not to trumpet the whole affair. The problem with that is that it has given opponents of freer trade a clear field to organize and propagandize, un-rebutted by proponents.

• He has not had an empowered trade minister or negotiating team to do the horse-trading at their level without sending it up to his desk. Karel de Gucht, the European trade commissioner, was astonished in February to arrive in Ottawa and discover that Ed Fast, sitting in his own capital city, had no authority to consent to trade-offs without kicking everything up to Harper’s office. I’m told he went home furious. You’ll note that Canadian teams are camped out in Brussels; it’s because European teams are done coming here.

As a bonus, Harper has also not had an empowered intergovernmental minister to cajole the provinces. Partly because Jean Charest led in the original push to negotiate this treaty, and because it would (if it were successful) extend deep into provincial jurisdictions, the provinces have been closely involved and have each sent their own negotiators as part of the federal delegation. But who’s riding herd over all those sometimes-convergent, sometimes-competing Canadian provincial interests? Nigel Wright, apparently, when he called Newfoundland’s Cathy Dunderdale last autumn to try to browbeat her over Muskrat Falls. And Nigel’s been busy lately.

Upshot: Eighteen months ago, the Europeans figured remaining issues could be wrapped within several weeks. They haven’t been.

• Which takes us to the latest problem: the EU formally launched trade talks with the United States on Monday. Any concession they grant us is one they must consider granting, approximately, to a market nearly 10 times as large.

I first wrote about these negotiations six years ago. I presented them as a bold extension of the Mulroney trade legacy, led by Charest, facilitated by Harper in a refreshing display of a new approach to federalism as a tool of policy creativity in the service of advancing Canadian prosperity. I still hope I was right then, and that my later, skeptical stance will turn out to have been cheap pessimism. It’s up to Stephen Harper. It always was.


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