Stephen Harper will jet to Europe this week to discuss the fate of Ukraine but he will be dogged by questions over why Ottawa has failed to finalize a multibillion-dollar free-trade agreement Canada and the 28-member bloc announced more than seven months ago.
It was mid-October last year when the Conservative government announced a “deal in principle” between Canada and the European Union, a development the Tories now celebrate as a centrepiece economic policy achievement.
And yet, more than 225 days later, there is still no legal text of the deal as the Canadian government continues to negotiate the finer points of the accord with the Europeans.
Business leaders say it now appears that the EU is putting more effort into separate negotiations on a free-trade deal with the United States, a market that’s vastly bigger than Canada’s.
The Conservative government refuses to identify which stumbling blocks remain but trade watchers say they range from intellectual property protections for pharmaceutical makers to access to local procurement markets and the allocation of cheese and beef quotas for duty-free access to Canada and EU markets, respectively.
Wire reports suggest Mr. Harper is set to discuss the Canada-European free trade deal with Jose Manuel Barroso, who helms the European Union’s executive branch, on the sidelines of a June 5 Group of Seven summit in Brussels.
The Conservative government, however, says no meeting is planned. And it declined to say when a legal text of the deal will be released or give a schedule for when it expects the agreement to be ratified by all 28 member states of the EU.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair suggested the government prematurely announced the deal last fall but Mr. Harper, defending its progress in the Commons, said what he called “technical negotiations” of the European deal will be completed soon.
International Trade Minister Ed Fast was too busy Monday to offer comment, his staff said, but he insisted last week that no substantive differences remain. “What we are now doing is the technical work required to translate the agreement in principle into 1,000 pages of text,” he told a Commons committee.
Veteran trade consultant Peter Clark says he believes there’s more at play right now than simply lawyers reviewing negotiated text.
“The devil is in the detail and finalizing the text goes beyond the agreed principles but you would think they should not contradict the principles,” he said.
Officials in Canada’s brand-name pharmaceutical industry said they’ve heard Ottawa has been pushing for an exemption that would prevent European drug companies from suing the Canadian government if it took action that affected intellectual property protections for medicines.
Lawrence Herman, a Toronto-based trade lawyer, said various EU member states are opposed to deal provisions that would require them to open up their markets. He said it’s up to the EU to overcome these objections.
Perrin Beatty, president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, said there’s no question it’s been slower than expected. He believes one factor is the EU’s focus on hammering out a trade deal with Washington.
“As a consequence we don’t have their undivided attention. Their team is spread more thinly.”
Mr. Beatty said Canada and the EU have nevertheless assured him that “while technical issues can be difficult there is no significant impediment” to completion of the deal.