Canada and France are good business partners and close allies, Stephen Harper said Wednesday, but both countries can do more to strengthen their economic relationship.
Speaking before a dinner with France's visiting Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, Mr. Harper said Canada is committed to completing a free-trade agreement with the European Union, which he said would boost trade between France and Canada.
"France is one of our closest allies and most important relationships in the entire world," Mr. Harper said. The two leaders, he said, would discuss economic challenges, negotiations on the free-trade deal and peace and security issues. Mr. Ayrault arrived in Ottawa Wednesday for his first official visit to Canada, which includes meetings with the premiers of Ontario and Quebec.
Canada is eager to conclude a free-trade accord with the EU to help it broaden its trade from dependence on the United States. But negotiations have been slow, in part because discussions include difficult issues such as agricultural tariffs and patent protection on pharmaceuticals.
Mr. Harper used the occasion to highlight the two countries' historic ties in language, culture and economic interests. In remarks released by the Prime Minister's Office, he called the two countries "good business partners," but added he believes they can do more. "There is much room to expand our economic relationship, directly, and indirectly, through wider trade with Europe," he said. "That's why Canada remains committed to concluding a comprehensive economic and trade agreement with the European Union."
A spokesman from Trade Minister Ed Fast's office said negotiations on the free-trade deal are ongoing and represent the most significant initiative on trade since Canada signed the North American free-trade agreement.
Mr. Ayrault called his visit a "testament to the profound friendship" between the two countries and thanked Canada for its contribution to France's military intervention in Mali.
"I am convinced that the Franco-Canadian partnership is not yesterday's business," he said in a speech released by the French embassy. "To the contrary, it corresponds to the aspirations of our peoples and to their challenges in a profoundly changing world."
He added that completing negotiations on an EU-Canada free-trade deal would be a "foundation" for a new chapter in the countries' relationship.
Mr. Ayrault held a private meeting in Mr. Harper's office, followed by a dinner at the Fairmont Château Laurier hotel in downtown Ottawa.
The French Prime Minister will hold a press conference with Mr. Harper on Thursday morning, then travel to Toronto to meet with Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne. He will also spend time in Montreal and Quebec City and meet with Quebec Premier Pauline Marois.
With a report from The Canadian Press