Canada-EU Trade: Harper's triumph

This deal is one of the things newspapers will mention when the prime minister retires, writes Paul Wells

Yves Logghe/AP

Flip it around. Every delay in reaching an agreement with the EU on freer trade in goods and services has been merrily mocked by a few critics in the gallery, yours truly first among them. And if Stephen Harper had failed to conclude this deal, having taken negotiations this far, he would have durably wrecked Canada’s reputation as a serious trading nation.

(That goes doubly so now that Canada and the EU have reached an agreement in principle. Could it still fall apart? It could, although my test on this, for reasons I explained long ago, is the reaction of the Europeans. I’m told there is no love lost between Harper and José Manuel Barroso; Barroso would not waste time in Brussels on an empty dog and pony show so Harper could duck a few questions about Mike Duffy. The Europeans think this is real. For now we should take today’s announcement at face value. The Council of Canadians sure does.)

Well, if delay was worth criticism and failure would have been read as a career-threatening personal defeat, success must be counted as a personal triumph for Stephen Harper. When his political career ends, this is one of the first three things the newspapers will mention.

The details emerging suggest limited progress on the hardest files. Supply management endures. Public procurement will be open only above certain threshold values. But even here, half a loaf is still a hell of a loaf: doubling European cheese imports puts real competitive pressure on Canadian dairy, and enhanced market access to the world’s largest single market—still twice the size of China’s in dollar terms—will be a powerful boost to Canadian exporters. And an incentive to Canadian businesses that aren’t currently exporting, or which export only to the U.S., to pick up their game.

Best of all, any advantage offered by any province and its municipalities to European importers must, in simple logic, be made available to businesses from other Canadian provinces. This accord will act powerfully to deepen the still fragmented internal Canadian market. In a week when some cabinet ministers were turning cartwheels because it will now be legal to drive from Hull to Ottawa with a bottle of wine, that’s an overdue change. I’m on the record being skeptical Harper couldn’t close this deal, and I’m happy to eat crow. This CETA deal will be the most powerful pro-market accomplishment of any Canadian government in a quarter century. 

Harper’s manner all along has been striking in its departure from the style of his predecessors. As I wrote in my first article on this process, more than six years ago, he let a provincial premier, Quebec’s Jean Charest, lead in the early going. He included every provincial government in the negotiating delegations from the outset, not simply producing a deeper agreement than would otherwise have been possible, but simply making an agreement possible because Ottawa could not have done this alone. And while his low-key style would have looked risk-averse if he had failed, it didn’t fail; Harper avoided most of the heated emotion that surrounded the last big free-trade efforts of the Mulroney era; and he now has a substantial victory in a year that hasn’t seen many.

The ball’s now in the other parties’ court. Thomas Mulcair has sounded like a critic of everything to do with trade who holds out the inexplicable possibility that he might support this deal anyway. Justin Trudeau has sounded like a robust free trader who isn’t at all pleased that Harper might actually produce a deal. Either could wind up on either side of this debate.

For Trudeau, in particular, it’s a tough call. When I arrived in Ottawa in 1994, a Chrétien staffer said to me, “John Turner supported Meech Lake and opposed free trade. He was wrong on both.” That flippant analysis would start a bar fight in any Liberal saloon in the country to this day, and Trudeau now faces a choice much like the one that faced Turner. But these fights on the undercard matter less than the very substantial victory Stephen Harper won today. He needed it.