Federal ministers seek to narrow differences

Two federal cabinet ministers headed to Europe last week for direct intervention as unresolved issues at the Canada-European Union free trade talks begin to narrow down to the politically toughest areas.

Agriculture minister Gerry Ritz and trade minister Ed Fast were in Brussels trying to narrow the differences.

“They (negotiators) are down to discussing some very difficult issues,” Denis Landreville, director and lead negotiator for regional agreements with Agriculture Canada, told the annual Grain Industry Symposium in Ottawa Nov. 21.

The difficult 10 percent of issues left to deal with include Canada’s aim to improve access to Europe for beef and pork and the EU demand for improved dairy product access and its insistence that European geographic indicators on many agricultural products (product names based on their region of origin) be respected in Canada.

“These types of issues will be among the last to be settled,” he said during the grain symposium organized by the Canada Grains Council and Grain Growers of Canada.

According to Landreville, the two sides have agreed on a text that will make the EU’s rule-making process for dealing with genetically modified products more “transparent.” However, any deal that emerges will not see the Europeans opening their markets to GM products or imports of beef from hormone-treated cattle.

Still, he said there has been significant progress since the negotiations launched in May 2009.

“Many chapters of the negotiation have been closed.”

He said the European agreement on a text opening its system for making rules on biotechnology products to more scrutiny and Canadian comment is “unprecedented.”

Although Landreville would not comment on the possible timing for a deal announcement, there has been speculation that the agreement is possible as early as the first quarter of 2013.

However, Canadian exporters should not expect new access anytime soon. Free trade deal approvals in Canada typically require at least two years to get through parliamentary hoops and the 27-country EU has an even more complicated and cumbersome approval process.

“It’s going to take some time,” said Landreville.

Even without a deal, the EU is Canada’s second largest trading partner.

Sales of Canadian agricultural products, mainly grains, oilseeds, pulses and special crops, are worth $2.7 billion annually. Agricultural and alcohol imports from Europe are worth $3.88 billion.

It is Canada’s largest trade negotiation in two decades.

“This process represents the most ambitious trade negotiation since the NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994),” said Landreville.

Meanwhile, Canadian trade negotiators are busy on many fronts.

Canada’s first session in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiation happens while talks with Japan, India, Ukraine and Morocco continue.