The European Union's ambassador to Canada said special access for agriculture goods is the last obstacle to a trade deal between Brussels and Ottawa, and drew a line in the sand over how much market access the EU could offer Canadian beef producers.
Ambassador Matthias Brinkmann engaged in public negotiation Thursday in comments to reporters in Ottawa, saying the EU could admit upward of 40,000 tonnes of Canadian beef per year but couldn't go much further without upsetting countries such as Ireland and France.
"We are ready to deliver that – even go beyond that – but as I said there's a certain limit which we can't go above," he said.
An EU-Canada deal is long overdue. The Conservatives promised in the last election campaign to sign one by 2012, and talks have dragged in recent months.
Mr. Brinkmann said he can see the way to a deal once both sides settle on how much Canadian beef and additional European cheese would be allowed into respective jurisdictions.
"There are other smaller things like public procurement, urban transport and rules of origin for cars and things like that. That we are working on. And there, we know more or less where it will end," he said.
"It hinges now on agriculture."
A spokesman for the Canadian government refused to comment on Mr. Brinkmann's 40,000 tonnes-plus offer, saying Ottawa would not bargain through the press. "The process of negotiations continues to unfold, and negotiators are meeting frequently to explore solutions to the remaining issues," said Rudy Husny, press secretary to International Trade Minister Ed Fast.
The Conservative government, with its deep Western Canada roots, has been especially attentive to the needs of beef producers during the EU talks.
The Canadian Cattlemen's Association was guarded in its response to Mr. Brinkmann's comments on Thursday and declined to say how many tonnes of beef access its members want.
John Masswohl, director of government and international relations for the association, could not say whether the figure the EU embraced publicly Thursday offered the basis for a deal. "We have not been talking about a number out there in the public because the number is only one element," he said.
"We need to know what does the quota cover, we need to know what kind of beef. How are they going to count it? Is it all beef? Is it veal? Does it cover bison?"
Mr. Masswohl acknowledged it was unusual for one side in bilateral trade talks to go public. "In this negotiation … there's been a lot of smoke and mirrors going on. The ambassador has said certain things in the past as well that aren't necessarily completely accurate of both sides' positions in the negotiations. So why he does these things – you have to ask him what his motivation is."
The federal government is pushing hard to secure a trade deal with the European Union before the House of Commons adjourns in June, an achievement the Conservatives sorely need to demonstrate they can ink ambitious accords that reduce Canada's reliance on the United States.
Mr. Brinkmann said he hopes a deal can be reached by the summer. "Without an agreement, there will be no more beef [shipments] at all," he noted.
Ottawa is in a race against the clock now that the European Union is turning its attention to a separate accord with the United States, a development that threatens to overshadow EU negotiations with Canada.
Mr. Brinkmann acknowledged that getting a deal with Canada "won't be any easier" once Brussels starts negotiating with Washington "because of resource problems." But he said the EU remains fully committed to a deal.
This long-delayed agreement would be Canada's biggest since the 1993 North American free-trade agreement.
It would make it easier for Canadian companies to sell goods and services to the 27-member EU with its 500 million consumers.