Europe FTA ignored in Harper government statements

The year-end target for striking a free trade deal with Europe has come and gone — with no sign of concern from Prime Minister Stephen Harper or his trade minister.

Although he talked about several pro-trade initiatives in his year-end statement, Harper made no mention of the Canada-Europe deal and Trade Minister Ed Fast mentioned it only in passing, noting there has been “continuing progress toward trade agreements with the European Union and India.”

Ottawa and Brussels have spent years in negotiations, with the last official negotiating session last fall. What’s needed now is for politicians to make the tough decisions that would close the deal, said Richard Phillips, chairman of the Canadian Agri-Food Trade Association.

“There’s been a lot of hard work behind the scenes to get this deal completed and we hope some key decisions will be made in January,” he said.

Trade expert Peter Clark said Harper and Fast are still keen to strike a deal, and he hopes that can happen by spring “or the process will drift along, especially if Europe gets involved in free trade talks with the United States.”

Keeping a low profile may be deliberate, said Danielle Goldfarb of the Conference Board of Canada.

“There could be a number of reasons for not giving them higher profile, and one of them could be that they want to downplay the deal for negotiating reasons, or because they want to underpromise and overdeliver,” she said.

Neither side wants the deal to “unravel” after spending so much time in negotiations, she added.

Proponents of the deal, including Goldfarb, say Canada needs to diversify its trade and access new markets, especially the $17-trillion European market.

The EU is already in trade talks with India and Japan, and once “the Americans start negotiating, it will be impossible to get the EU’s attention again,” said Goldfarb.

Among the stumbling blocks, said Clark, is Canada’s insistence on greater access for its beef and pork producers, and rules of origin that would make it harder for Canadian food companies to use American or foreign ingredients in their products.

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