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Prime Minister Stephen Harper goes over documents with Defence minister Peter MacKay in the House of Commonson Nov. 18, 2008. (Tom Hanson/The Canadian Press)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper goes over documents with Defence minister Peter MacKay in the House of Commonson Nov. 18, 2008. (Tom Hanson/The Canadian Press)

UAE rift exposes division in Harper caucus Add to ...

Ottawa's eviction from a Mideast military base has exposed a rift within the Harper cabinet over how far Canada should go to satisfy its Arab hosts: an internal debate in which Stephen Harper cut Defence Minister Peter MacKay out of negotiations.

Canada is set to vacate Camp Mirage, a once-secret military installation, by Nov. 5 after failing to reach an agreement with the United Arab Emirates over what would amount to compensation for nine years of accommodation near Dubai.

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The UAE has been seeking additional lucrative landing rights for two state-backed air carriers at Canadian airports, and Mr. MacKay was one of several ministers, including Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz and International Trade Minister Peter Van Loan, who had favoured doing more to help the Arab ally, a senior Conservative MP said.

The Prime Minister ultimately cut these ministers out of negotiations, the official said, favouring the forceful arguments against big concessions advanced earlier this year by former transport minister John Baird.

The loss of the base has left some cabinet members frustrated and angry at how Mr. Harper handled it.

"[It's]all gone because of a fit of pique and a hard [core]position that is truculent and unreasonable against Canada's short- and long-term interests," the MP said.

Ottawa was ordered last week to vacate Camp Mirage within 30 days, but the UAE escalated the conflict even further on Monday, barring Mr. MacKay and Chief of Defence Staff Walt Natynczyk from even entering its airspace during a flight from Afghanistan. Prevented from landing at Camp Mirage, the pair were forced to reroute through Europe.

The bitter state of relations with UAE comes a month after the last attempt at formal talks - meetings that proved fruitless due to intransigence on both sides.

The offer that Canada presented to the UAE in both August and September was relatively modest: it would grant both Emirates carriers one additional round-trip flight per week on top of three they are each already allowed. Or, Ottawa said, the carriers could each have a maximum of seven round-trip flights per week on smaller planes but effectively only one more trip to Toronto for Emirates Airlines or Etihad Airways.

One industry source familiar with negotiations defended Canada's offers, saying they were merely opening bids, and that during the September meetings in Paris, the Canadians asked the UAE what more could be done. The response from the UAE, which wants at least four more flights a week per carrier, suggested the gap was too great to bridge.

Mr. Harper, angered by the UAE's decision to link Camp Mirage and air-access negotiations, would not budge. Sources say he shut down further discussion on the issue - after Mr. Baird's entreaties - because he didn't like the idea of being pressed to give more landing slots.

The move was a repudiation, a senior Tory MP says, of Mr. Harper's decision several months ago to allow the UAE more landing slots in recognition of previous negotiations that acknowledged Canada had been a guest in the UAE since 2001.

Canada has never compensated the UAE for using the base.

With roughly three weeks to leave the United Arab Emirates, the Canadian Forces are preparing to relocate their logistics base for Afghanistan-bound soldiers to somewhere such as Cyprus.

The move - even as the Forces are preparing for a 2011 withdrawal from Afghanistan - is a headache for the military.

The Tory MP said the senior hierarchy at the Department of National Defence is disappointed with how Mr. Harper has handled the dispute - given the initial efforts to reach a settlement as well as the enormous cost and logistical challenges of relocating.

Mr. MacKay's office said he was unavailable to talk on Tuesday. Mr. Van Loan's office said he was travelling and referred calls to Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon's office. Mr. Ritz's office did not return a phone call.

Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae called the breakdown of negotiations an embarrassment for Canada. It should not have been impossible for two nations that profess support for freer trade in airline competition to strike a deal, he said. "Is it beyond the imagination of two countries to find an agreement that is mutually beneficial. And in my view it should not be impossible to do so."

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