Skip to main content

Marie-Anne Coninsx, the European Union’s ambassador to Canada, gestures during an interview in Ottawa on Oct. 22, 2013.DAVE CHAN/The Globe and Mail

Canadians are paying high prices for their cheese and should welcome more European imports to increase their choices.

That's the message from European Union Ambassador Marie-Anne Coninsx, who led a large diplomatic delegation to Ontario last week to drum up support for CETA, Canada's recently signed free trade deal with Europe.

One of the pact's most controversial provisions is a clause that will increase the amount of European cheese allowed into the country by 17,000 tonnes. But Canada will still maintain a quota on transatlantic cheese to protect domestic producers – a concession to the country's dairy lobby.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Ms. Coninsx said she hopes one day that protectionist barrier will be torn down completely. Canadian dairies' worries are unwarranted, she said, since the deal will only result in European market share growing to eight or 10 per cent from 4 per cent.

"It's really not a big deal," she said. "I heard that the cheese producers are making quite a lot of fuss about it. I cannot imagine that this slight increase will make their market disappear."

Critics of the way Canada's dairy industry is currently run argue its supply management system makes products needlessly expensive. Ms. Coninsx echoed these concerns.

"I was struck by the fact when I was here in Canada that the prices of dairy are so high. It's not only the European cheeses which are very expensive, but also the Canadian cheeses," she said. "If I [were] a Canadian citizen, I would ask some questions about the system."

Dairy Farmers of Canada said no one was available to comment on Ms. Coninsx's views. The organization has maintained the supply management system is necessary to protect dairy farmers against subsidized counterparts in other countries.

Ottawa has suggested the deal strikes the right balance between freer trade and protecting the country's producers.

"We provided modest additional access while maintaining our system of supply management and we look forward to implementing the agreement so Canadian exporters can benefit from this historic agreement," Rudy Husny, a spokesman for International Trade Minister Ed Fast wrote in an e-mail.

Ontario, for its part, has lined up behind the dairy lobby. A spokesman for Economic Development Minister Eric Hoskins wrote in an e-mail that CETA "could harm" producers.

The cheese rules aren't the only protectionist measures the deal maintains for Canada. Ontario government sources have told The Globe the province also lobbied successfully for provisions that allow for some favouritism of local companies on lucrative government contracts.

Most significantly, Infrastructure Ontario – the Crown corporation that builds most of the province's hospitals, highways and transit lines – is completely exempt from CETA, allowing it to favour Ontario businesses in bids.

Ms. Coninsx confirmed both Ontario and Quebec won provisions that allow them to help local companies on procurement. Municipalities can also build local content requirements into infrastructure contracts worth less than $8-million or service agreements worth under $300,000.

European contracts, meanwhile, will be completely open to Canadian bids, she said.

Bending to Canadian demands on infrastructure and cheese was worth it, she said, because the EU got much of what it wanted from Canada, including more protection for intellectual property, geographical indicators for agricultural products and clauses that will make it easier for high-skilled Europeans to work temporarily in Canada.

"This was so important for the European Union to get this access which it didn't have," she said.

Ms. Coninsx's trip, which included 23 EU heads of mission, included meetings with Premier Kathleen Wynne, business people and school students. She said the diplomats wanted to learn more about Ontario's "leading" green energy industry, its environmental policies and to make connections for a new science and technology research fund.