Canadian negotiators have been instructed to remain in Brussels for nine additional days as the Harper government makes its most concerted effort yet to clinch a major trade agreement with the European Union.
The Tories are putting the finishing touches on a huge communications strategy to sell a deal they hope can be reached by the time Prime Minister Stephen Harper heads to Europe in advance of the June 17-18 Group of Eight summit in Northern Ireland.
Mr. Harper is spending eight days in Europe starting June 11, a schedule that would allow him time to make a detour to the EU capital in Belgium to celebrate a trade agreement.
Steve Verheul, Canada's head negotiator, has been in Brussels in talks with the Europeans for the past week. Ed Fast, Canada's trade minister, has also dispatched Bill Hawkins, his chief of staff, to the negotiations so he can report back progress at this crucial juncture.
Sources close to the talks say Mr. Verheul's team has been told to remain at the negotiating table in Brussels until at least June 8.
Mr. Fast, who met Wednesday with his EU trade counterpart on the sidelines of an Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development meeting in Paris, will speak by phone Saturday with Karel De Gucht to keep pressure on the talks.
A Canada-EU deal would be broader in scope and deeper in ambition than the historic Canada-U.S. free-trade agreement of 1988. The Harper government sorely needs a deal to show it is succeeding at diversifying trade away from the slow-growing U.S. market – and to change the channel from a corrosive scandal over Senate expenses.
It would make it easier for Canadian companies to invest in, and sell to, the 17-member EU with its 500 million consumers.
For weeks, both sides have been saying they are very close to a deal, with only a few details left to be worked out.
But like all trade negotiations, the most difficult concessions are left until last. Matching up the trade-offs each country is prepared to make has taken time.
The Conservatives insist they won't take a deal at any cost.
"An announcement will only be made when Canada's core interests are met: sufficient access to the EU market for beef and pork – and a deal that benefits all regions of the country," said Adam Taylor, director of communications for Mr. Fast.
Canada wants the European Union to grant more access for beef than Brussels is prepared to give. It wants as much leeway as possible to ship Canadian-assembled cars to the EU. The Europeans want Ottawa to lengthen the effective patent protection for brand-name medicine in Canada and open up provincial and city procurement markets.
"[Europe's] sensitive about greater beef access. [Canada's] sensitive about intellectual property. We're prepared to make that type of trade … that is the official state of play at work," one person familiar with the talks said.
Newfoundland Premier Kathy Dunderdale has recently drawn attention to the pressure Ottawa is putting on provinces to make concessions for an EU deal. Ottawa is asking St. John's to scrap provincial rules that require fish landed locally to be processed locally. She hinted Thursday that improvements to regional federal search-and-rescue services are on the table in her discussions with the federal government.
Canada is under pressure to get a deal with the EU before Brussels turns its negotiating efforts this summer to a free-trade deal with the United States. At the same time, the EU would like to clinch a Canadian deal to demonstrate to Washington that it can ink a substantive agreement to liberalize trade and to prove it is worth the negotiating effort.