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Visa feud clouds Harper's free-trade dream with Europe

EU flags fly at European Commission headquarters in Brussels on May 9, 2011.

Yves Logghe/AP

The free-trade deal with the European Union that Stephen Harper's government desperately wants will not be ratified unless Canada lifts visa restrictions on three European countries, the EU's ambassador says.

It's a hard deadline that has created an unusual link: the Harper government is rushing to change the way Canada's refugee laws work so that it can seal the European trade deal.

The link has been created because three EU countries – the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, and Romania – are upset that Canada requires its citizens to obtain visitors visas before they can come here. Canada slapped a visa restriction on the Czech Republic in 2009, arguing that too many Czech Roma visitors claim refugee status when they arrive.

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The Harper government has insisted it can solve the visa dispute with refugee reforms that would fast-track refugee claimants from countries deemed safe, so that those who are refused are quickly returned. That way, the visa restrictions could be quickly lifted. Ottawa has told the EU to expect that its member countries would be deemed safe, so that visa restrictions would be lifted.

The EU Ambassador to Canada, Matthias Brinkmann, told reporters Thursday it's unlikely that politicians from those three countries would support ratification of a Canada-EU free trade deal unless Canada first lifts the current visa restrictions. "These three members states, will they give approval to an agreement if they still need visas? Probably not," he said.

That's an obstacle because it's expected that the trade agreement, still being negotiated, will have to be ratified not only by the European Parliament but by the national legislatures of all 27 EU countries. Ottawa faces a deadline for lifting the visas if it wants the trade deal to be ratified, Mr. Brinkmann said. There is still time, however: the Canada-EU deal is expected to be signed later this year, but ratification can take up to two years longer.

Mr. Harper's government has promised repeatedly – including during last year's election campaign – that it will land the free-trade deal with the EU, the world's largest market.

But although negotiations in most areas have been completed, the two sides have not even exchanged proposals on the most sensitive issues – notably allowing more European cheese into Canada's heavily-protected dairy sector. Production of dairy goods is limited by quotas in Canada to protect the incomes of the country's 13,000 dairy farmers, and tariffs of more than 200 per cent are applied to imported dairy.

The EU is allowed to ship a small amount of cheese to Canada without paying that tariff, but the Europeans want a larger quota. Canadian beef and pork producers, in turn, want access to EU markets. Mr. Brinkmann said the EU is prepared to make a trade, but it's up to Canada to decide if it will make an ambitious offer of dairy quota to really open European markets for Canadian beef farmers.

"For the Prairies, beef will be a big issue. And there will be no beef without dairy," he said.

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Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misstated the three countries facing visa restrictions. This version has been corrected.

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