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Five former premiers have written to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asking him to take direct action to fix problems with the Canada-European Union trade deal that they say are thwarting Canadian agri-food sales to the 27-country market.

Signatories of the letter include Jean Charest, the former Quebec premier who helped kick-start negotiations that led to the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), a pact that entered into force three years ago in September, 2017. All the premiers listed were in office during negotiations for this deal.

The former premiers, echoing concerns that have been repeatedly raised by industry groups such as the Canadian-Agrifood Trade Alliance (CAFTA), warn that EU countries are still imposing barriers to imports that frustrate Canadian shipments of pork, beef, canola and grains to the common market.

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While overall trade has increased since the Canada-EU deal took effect, Canadian sales of farm goods and other agri-food to the EU have not flourished as expected.

The former premiers, who also include former Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne and former Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall, former Manitoba premier Gary Doer and former Alberta premier Ed Stelmach, say this state of affairs is not what provinces were assured during negotiations with the EU.

Provinces, they said, were told CETA would be “transformative for Canada’s world-class agrifood sector, [which is] one of the largest drivers of job creation and economic growth across Canada.”

Instead, they say, the Canada-EU deal has been in place for three years and “has failed to deliver on its promises for Canadian agri-food exporters.”

Offering one example, they noted that Italy is still requiring labels on pasta describing the product’s country of origin, which “is unquestionably offside … both the EU’s CETA commitments and EU law.”

The former premiers note that the CETA deal relied on their consent.

“In exchange for agreeing to open up many areas under provincial authority, provinces expected reciprocal benefits in return. Chief among them was significant market access to the European Union for the agriculture and agri-food sector,” the signatories said.

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Canada and the EU had been expected to work together to ensure that differing regulations for agri-food didn’t end up blocking trade and that Brussels would accept meat cleared by the Canadian inspectors as part of a mutual recognition system.

European subsidies for sugar and sugar-containing products are also a source of frustration for Canadian exporters.

The premiers say they are now worried about the “lack of commitment the European Union is demonstrating to adhere to the spirit” of the trade pact. “The EU’s failure to address these issues within CETA poses great reputational risk for its status as a community that not only champions free and rules-based trade but also as counterparty that abides by the outcomes it has negotiated.”

They are asking Mr. Trudeau to take these concerns directly with the leaders of EU member states rather than just EU officials. “We know your government has raised these issues with your EU counterparts. … However, in the interests of ensuring Canada’s post-pandemic recovery is not harmed by continued or new possible threats of protectionism, we believe you should raise these issues directly with EU leaders.”

CAFTA says Canada ran an agricultural trade deficit with the EU in 2019 and 2018, the first two full years of data after CETA’s entry into force. The 2019 trade deficit, in the EU’s favour, amounted to $2.8-billion and in 2018 it amounted to $3.4-billion.

The EU has recently unveiled a “Farm to Fork” strategy as part of the economic union’s plan to make itself “climate neutral” by 2050. It includes 2030 targets for mandatory front-of-package country-of-origin labelling for some products and targets to reduce the use of pesticides, fertilizers and anti-microbial agents. CAFTA is worried this will end up frustrating trade, too.

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“While we share the broad objectives underpinning these initiatives, we must work together to ensure these policies do not further exacerbate existing barriers or create new ones that are not grounded in science and internationally agreed-upon protocols and do not diverge from international guidelines,” said Claire Citeau, the executive director of CAFTA.

International Trade Minister Mary Ng’s office, responding to the ex-premiers' letter, said they are trying to fix the problems identified.

“As the signatories acknowledged in their letter, our government is actively working to resolve challenges such as the non-tariff barriers posed by EU regulations in agriculture and food,” press secretary Ryan Nearing said in a statement. “Minister Ng has raised this issue with her EU counterparts numerous times, including in her many discussions with former EU Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan.”

He said Canada is working with the EU on a tool for Canadian beef and pork exporters that could help them with their shipments.

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