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Opinion How our 20-year fight for Canada-Europe free trade finally succeeded

Roy MacLaren is a former Minister of International Trade and High Commissioner to the United Kingdom.

International trade agreements frequently have a rather long genesis. The Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), released last week, is no exception.

In 1994 – twenty years ago – when Prime Minister Jean Chretien was to address the French Senate I made certain, as Canada's Minister for International Trade, that his text included a proposal for a transatlantic trade agreement between the North American free-trade agreement and the burgeoning European Union. I had recently shepherded NAFTA through the House of Commons. Being an inveterate free trader, I had then begun to explore transatlantic support for a NAFTA-EU trade and investment agreement. There was, however, no response from either Brussels or Washington. Dead silence.

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I had expected my American counterpart at the time, the United States Trade Representative, to say that while he supported the idea in principle, a Democratic Congress, influenced as it was by protectionist organized labour, had exhausted in the contentious passage of NAFTA whatever limited appetite it had for more liberalized, rules-based trade. Instead, he pleaded with me to understand that President Bill Clinton would not be granted the essential fast-track negotiating authority by Congress, as a consequence of his discordant affair with Monica Lewinsky. A Congress which had impeachment proposals before it was in no mood to grant a wayward president any additional authority. So much for a NAFTA-EU agreement.

Collectively, it was decided that Canada should go it alone transatlantically (Mexico already having a free trade agreement of sorts with the EU) so as to secure free entry for Canada to the rich European market well before the United States did do so – if it ever did. I was, however, assured by Leon Brittan, the European Commissioner for Trade, that Brussels had far too much to do in deepening and expanding itself to spend time on a Canada-EU trade agreement. Trade liberalization could be sought only multilaterally through the new, but already faltering, World Trade Organization. Mr. Brittan's successor, Pascal Lamy, was even less imaginative, excitedly assuring me that a transatlantic pact was unavailable.

Having completed a tour as High Commissioner for Canada in London, I became Chairman of the Toronto-based advocacy group the Canada Europe Roundtable for Business, which had corporate members from both sides of the Atlantic. Finally, in a meeting with Peter Mandelson, the new EU Commissioner for Trade, the ice began to thaw. Mr. Mandelson readily agreed, reflecting the UK's centuries-old commitment to free trade, to launch a preliminary scoping exercise to estimate the direct economic benefits for both Canada and the EU.

While rejoicing in the Canadian federal government's success in eliminating the fiscal deficit as a necessary condition for Canada's international competitiveness, I could now rejoice in the first major step toward a transatlantic trade agreement foreseen by Lester Pearson in 1947.

Things then began to move at an accelerating pace. Knowing that in any negotiations the EU would undoubtedly look for the concurrence of the Canadian provinces (who constitutionally have powers that would impinge on a modern trade agreement), CERT enlisted the support of the persuasive Jean Charest, then Premier of Quebec, who in the Council of the Federation and everywhere else became a tireless advocate of the negotiations. Over time, the ten provinces and three territories fell into line, some even recognizing that a transatlantic agreement would entail the much-delayed demise of self-inflicted interprovincial trade barriers.

The Conservative government of Stephen Harper launched into five years of demanding negotiations and never flinched. With the backing of the amiable Ed Fast, the Minister for International Trade, a first-class negotiating team led by Steven Verheul, working with the equally competent European team, finally brought it off.

And there it was, on 26 September 2014, in all its 1600-page glory. Legal scrubbing and translation into twenty-three languages awaits, yet it is now in place, available to the private sectors of Canada and Europe to make the most of it. José Manuel Barroso, the President of the European Commission, welcomed the agreement in Toronto by praising the sacrifice of Canadian soldiers who helped keep Europe free, and exclaiming: "Vive le Canada! Vive l'Europe!"

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