Trade Minister Ed Fast says he believes a comprehensive trade deal with the European Union is achievable by year's end and that he has been assured Quebec's new government remains on side.
The minister, who talked with Quebec's finance and international relations ministers by phone last week, said he was assured that the separatist-minded Parti Québecois government desires a trade deal with the European Union.
As well, the PQ has also decided to retain Pierre Marc Johnson, who was named by the previous Liberal regime as the province's chief negotiator at the talks.
"I certainly sensed from my counterparts in Quebec that they understand how important this agreement is," Mr. Fast said in an interview Tuesday.
The minister made the comments after a breakfast meeting in Ottawa with the heads of mission representing the EU.
With one final negotiating session scheduled for later this month, Mr. Fast said both he and the EU representatives agreed they should aim for a deal by year's end.
"Essentially, what they are doing is addressing that final basket of issues that still remains to be negotiated," he said.
"We all share a very strong commitment to concluding these negotiations in short order. We're still aiming for 2012 and from our meeting this morning it's pretty clear that the EU is also aiming to conclude negotiations in 2012."
Ottawa believes a successful economic partnership with major European countries will net Canada about $12-billion in economic benefits.
Watchers of the talks believe the two sides are close or may even have reached an understanding on the issue of supply management, with Canada agreeing to reduce restrictions on some imports, particularly cheese.
Europe is also demanding that Canada extend patent protection on pharmaceuticals from the current eight to 10 years, which critics argue will lead to higher drug prices. Supporters say the move will attract more research dollars into Canada and create jobs.
Another key issue deals with the extent to which provinces and municipalities will need to end local preferences in procurement contracts.
The minister said a successful conclusion to the talks, which aims at creating an economic partnership with the EU, will send a message to the world of the importance of unfettered trade in the global economy.
Canada remains committed to opening up markets wherever it can, he said.
But he agreed with Foreign Minister John Baird's assessment last week that a trade deal with China, the world's second-largest economy, is not in the immediate future. The two sides recently completed a study to look into complimentary sectors of the economy, which Fast said the government is currently studying.
"It's premature to speculate as to what kind of framework agreement for trade and investment is appropriate, if any," he said.