OTTAWA – Trade Minister Ed Fast is shooting down European claims that the federal government’s stalling prevented a trade deal from coming together as early as last February, saying he remains convinced the two sides will eventually reach an agreement.
In an interview Friday prior to an expected cabinet shuffle next week, Fast said negotiators were in touch this week and are expected to meet face to face shortly to work out a short list of unresolved issues.
Last week, EU ambassador Matthias Brinkmann blamed Canada for the protracted nature of the talks that have involved several missed deadlines, including during last month’s G8 summit in Ireland. Canada’s quota demands for beef exports remained a sticking point after Europe made a generous offer, Brinkmann said.
The statement was seen as an effort by Europe to apply pressure on Canada at a time when the EU is shifting its attention and resources to the higher-stakes talks with the U.S., which got underway this week.
“I’m sure Mr. Brinkmann would have been happy with the deal in February because it would have been in the EU’s favour, but what was on the table was not in Canada’s interest and we will not sign that kind of agreement,” Fast said.
Since February, the two sides have come closer together on a number of issues, he added, suggesting that the deal’s state of play is now closer to Canada’s liking.
Fast said he does not believe the European-U.S. free trade talks will sideline Canada. Given how close the two sides are, Canada is dealing with only a handful of European negotiators, a spokesman for his office said.
“We have every indication that the European Union negotiators remain 100 per cent committed to concluding their negotiations with Canada,” Fast said.
“I’m absolutely confident that at the end of the day we’ll be able to come up with an agreement that is clearly in Canada’s best long-term interest.”
Still, observers say the entry of Washington has complicated the process not only in terms of logistics and European motivation, but also because any concession the EU makes to Canada, it likely will have to make tenfold to the U.S.
International Chamber of Commerce secretary general Jean-Guy Carrier noted he hasn’t witnessed a major trade deal in more than a decade, and given the current difficulties in the Canada-EU talks, he is not convinced there’s a good outcome down the road.
“Under current circumstances, I think it’s not very promising,” said Carrier.
One side will have to make further concessions to serve the greater interest of getting a deal, he said, suggesting Prime Minister Stephen Harper might want to consider blinking first.
“It seems to me if Canada went ahead and was able to reconcile some of the differences with Europe, this would be a tremendous sign of leadership in terms of trade negotiations,” he said.
“At some point, the cost of not getting an agreement outweighs the cost of getting it because there’s always going to be some political sell.”
But another official close to talks took the opposite view, saying Canada has already offered the Europeans concessions on intellectual property and agriculture.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the tone of the negotiations has shifted in recent months with the Canadian team becoming more stressed and the Europeans feeling more confident.
“Rightly or wrongly, they see that they have Canada over a barrel,” the official said.
“I’m afraid that in the desperation to get a deal that the Canadian government will move beyond what the negotiators are advising.”
Fast insisted the government will not bend to political pressure on what he calls artificial deadlines.
He is also taking the same stance in talks with Japan, which concluded their third formal round on Friday, but are still a long way off from completion.
The minister said the two pacts would be a major stimulus for the Canadian economy — a combined gross domestic product boost of about $16 billion a year and an additional 105,000 jobs — but only if the are the right deals.
Canada is also part of a multilateral negotiation for a Trans-Pacific Partnership, which also includes the U.S. and Japan.
In theory, the Canada-Japan negotiation should go smoother than the EU talks because it involves two-way bargaining, whereas the European talks pitted Canada against a group of 28 nations with different interests and positions. Analysts also suggest Canada’s and Japan’s economies share more complimentary sectors, suggesting fewer areas of conflict.
“On food security and energy security, that is a relationship that has every prospect of growing over the next decade,” Fast said.
Fast, who was appointed trade minister more than two years ago, refused Friday to speculate about whether he will still be on the file following the cabinet shuffle.
“I love my job,” he said.