The Brussels press conference was inordinately long by Stephen Harper's standards. But the Prime Minister didn't seem to mind. In fact, he appeared to run out of superlatives to describe his government's free-trade agreement between Canada and Europe.
"This is a big deal. Indeed it is the biggest deal our country has ever made," Mr. Harper said as he stood beside José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president.
Mr. Harper overstates it. The free-trade deal with the United States, concluded in 1988, helped revolutionize the Canadian economy, and the North American free-trade agreement in 1993 built on that. Still, he can certainly assert this is the most ambitious trade agreement in a dry 20 years.
That is no small thing – if there truly is a deal, that is. Looking at Mr. Harper and Mr. Barroso shake hands in front of cameras, one could not help but wonder if they didn't say "cheese" and uncork the soon-to-be-cheaper champagne a little early.
Free-trade deals are immensely complex, and getting them ratified under the scrutiny of industry lobby groups is an arduous process at the best of times. This deal was so long in the making – four years – that Mr. Harper had enough time to write a book on hockey's history before making trade history.
To their credit, Mr. Harper and Mr. Barroso finally knocked down the biggest stumbling blocks. But when heads of governments fly cross the Atlantic to unveil a trade deal, they normally sign a piece of paper and give out copies of something close to a final text. Not this time.
Hence the uneasiness of trade experts when it comes to commenting on the Canada-Europe deal. The 44-page document published by Ottawa reads like a Conservative political ad disguised as a government "action plan." A business such as Quebec's Olymel LP, Canada's biggest pork processor, should see a boost: It already exports 54 per cent of its production. Yet company officials don't want to comment on the deal before they read the agreement. There's just not enough detail yet.
"This is quite irritating to those who follow international trade closely," says Armand de Mestral, a law professor from McGill University who specializes in international trade.
For example, Mr. de Mestral wonders how negotiators reconciled the diverging approaches between Canada and Europe on rules of origin. Those rules define how much of a product must be sourced and manufactured in Canada for it to be considered "Canadian," with a privileged access to the European market, and vice versa.
"The only thing they were fairly specific about is shrimp," Mr. de Mestral observes. A boxed text tells the story of a Newfoundland producer who will see the 20-per-cent duty disappear on the shrimp it sells to France.
"I am not saying that this is premature jubilation. … But until this is signed and ratified, this is not a deal," says Peter Clark, a former trade negotiator for Canada who runs a consulting firm in Ottawa. And that will take up to two years – if all goes well.
First, the lawyers need to clean the agreement, then the text needs to be translated into the languages of the 28 European Union countries. "The devil is in the details, and the devils travel in packs," Mr. Clark says. Then the accord needs to be ratified, not only by the European parliament and the European council but by the 28 member countries of the EU, according to the rules set in place in 2009.
The Czech Republic said it would not ratify a free-trade deal with Canada if Ottawa didn't remove the visa requirements for its citizens. Citizenship and Immigration minister Chris Alexander announced a week ago that Czech tourists would no longer need a visa to visit the country. But Bulgarians and Romanians still need visas, and it is unclear how that sits with them.
Moreover, there are upcoming elections in the European parliament next May. So far, the free-trade deal with Canada, a small partner, has not created a stir. With the exception of beef and pork producers, few industries have voiced their discontent. But the details could change the mood.
And yet getting the free-trade accord ratified is crucial, as Canada has the United States on its heels. The Obama administration is hoping to seal a trade deal with Europe before the next presidential election. With a free-trade accord, Canadian businesses could make inroads in Europe before the Americans get better access to one of the largest markets in the world.
It is a tantalizing prospect for Canadian businesses. But there is still a lot of work to be done.