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Critics of a Canada-EU trade deal deliver a Trojan horse to Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, October 17, 2011.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

This is the big deal, the one Prime Minister Stephen Harper needed, and the only one he's likely to get before the next election. We don't know yet precisely what he had to give up to get it.

A Canada-European Union free-trade deal, it is now doubly clear, is crucial to Mr. Harper's political brand. After four years of negotiations, the PM tweeted that the deal was (essentially) done just as he was about to set out, in a Throne Speech, the governing agenda to take him to the next election. That underlined how much sealing the trade deal is crucial to his politics. Now he's headed to Brussels to ink a deal.

That it was sealed, according to government sources, with the concession of cheese makes it seem all the more like a deal that was waiting for Mr. Harper's go-ahead.

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Specifically, Canada has agreed to allow the EU to more than double its tariff-free cheese exports to Canada's closed dairy market, from 13,000 tonnes to 30,000 – in return for Canada's right to sell more beef and pork to Europe.

That angers dairy farmers, long considered a politically influential constituency, especially in Quebec and Ontario, though one declining in numbers. NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair has signalled it will be a fighting point.

But it's always been predictable, and in fact, diplomats and trade officials from Europe and Canada have predicted since the start of the talks that a cheese-for-meat trade-off, with a substantially expanded EU cheese quota, was how sensitive agricultural issues would be settled. This concession was always the pin that would be stuck in the talks to bind the deal together, and now Mr. Harper had decided to close.

Indeed, EU officials had twice before thought there was a deal for the making, including this past spring, when Mr. Harper travelled to Europe but surprised his hosts by not pushing the agreement to completion. Jason Langrish, the executive director of the Canada Europe Roundtable for Business, said governments are so populist now, they're reluctant to sign a deal and fight for it. "They're risk-averse," he said.

The long list of complicated trade-offs, and balances to make sure each province felt it could accept a deal, was far more complicated. There will be other issues that will be controversial, like the extension of patent protection for pharmaceuticals that could have an impact on prescription-drug prices, and European guarantees that they can bid on provincial and municipal contracts. Mr. Harper will point to increased access to European markets in general and specifically to sell cars and services like engineering to Europe. The details will matter.

But Mr. Harper needed a deal. He has built his political brand, and his offer to voters, on steering the economy, a free-market, lower-tax Canada with expanded trade. And his trade agenda was troubled by a paucity of clear, concrete "deliverables."

The Keystone pipeline he pushed for remains in limbo. His government signed nine free-trade deals, but with small trading partners like Colombia or Jordan. It was Mr. Harper who promised the big free-trade deals – including settling the EU deal by 2012 and signing one with India in 2013. He kept touting the advantages of free-trade deals by suggesting new talks, with Japan, Thailand, and entering negotiations for the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership.

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But India hasn't shown zeal, and the TPP, with complicated multi-nation talks, could get bogged down. Heading into the next election without a big deal to point to would leave him open to assertions that his own trade agenda had unravelled, threatening his economic-manager brand.

"He needed this," Mr. Langrish said. "He's not going to get a deal with India. The TPP, who knows? This is the only deal he's going to get before an election."

Campbell Clark writes about foreign affairs from Ottawa.

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