MacLean's' Paul Wells reports that ongoing discussions about a free trade deal between Canada and the European Union seem likely to go nowhere.
Everybody connected to the negotiations assures me there will be a deal. Every public sign I see makes me think there won’t.
At the end of October, De Gucht, a former Belgian foreign minister, sat down for a webcast interview with an EU journalist about the negotiations. His body language was comical. “I hope that we can finish these negotiations by the end of the year,” he said. “That’s the day after tomorrow, hmm?” Translation: that deadline is really freaking close.
So, he said, Fast would come to Brussels. “But we should have no illusions. There are still a number of difficult issues to tackle. So I’m not promising anything. But we will make a major effort to close the deal before the end of the year. That’s what we are going to do. But there are a number of issues I believe that you can only resolve at the political level. That’s why . . . we will have a ministerial [meeting] to, yeah, to close the deal, I mean to sort it out and do the necessary political arbitration.”
Pro tip: if an automobile salesman describes his product to you in similar halting terms, don’t buy the car.
Two weeks later, De Gucht was sounding far more chipper. “I expect to conclude a comprehensive agreement with Canada very soon,” he told a business audience in Mexico. “Even more crucially, it is possible that we will start talks for a deep free trade agreement with the United States, if our leaders agree on this in the new year.”
But now it was Harper’s turn to sound less than bullish. “There’s a lot of roadblocks out there in all these relationships, China, India, the negotiations with the European Union, the Americas strategy,” he told the Toronto Star. “Frankly, because of all the impediments, my judgment is that we have to go hard on all fronts and see what actually progresses.”
Why does it matter? Because the so-called Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with Europe is the biggest and oldest trade file on the government docket. Jean Charest started pushing European contacts to take the idea seriously during his first term as Quebec premier, in 2006. Harper came on board in early 2007. Negotiations began in 2009, after a preliminary study suggested an agreement could be worth $12 billion a year to Canada. Back then, Stockwell Day was the trade minister and he said he’d like to see negotiations conclude by the end of 2010. They slipped, and slipped again, and slipped some more, and now it’s two years later.
Why is it so hard? A Canada-EU CETA would be much more ambitious in opening markets in services, investment and government procurement than the Canada-U.S. free trade agreement. A broad range of domestic interests on both sides would rather keep those markets closed. And the opponents of CETA have been far more effective at mobilizing opposition than its proponents have been at mobilizing support.