Canada needs to adopt a new approach to the EU: URGENCY!

With all the frustration and abuse coming from Canada’s fraught trading relationship with China, it was easy to forget all about the third anniversary of the Canada-European Union trade deal (CETA) last week.

But when Canada’s agriculture and food exporters turned their attention to that quieter relationship, it wasn’t with any joy. Nor were many of Canada’s political veterans celebratory.

“CETA has now been in force for three years and it has failed to deliver on its promises for Canada’s agri-food exporters,” wrote five former premiers from across the political spectrum in a letter to the federal government’s ministers responsible for trade, food and agriculture.

“This outcome results from the EU Commission and EU member states continuing to impose a wide range of trade barriers for pork, beef, canola, sugar and grains, or failing to reduce those that were to be lowered or eliminated altogether.”

It is a story that this newspaper has covered since CETA was signed. In fact, it is a story we covered while the deal was being negotiated, finalized and passed. There were big hopes, especially for agriculture, that the deal would open Europe’s notoriously closed market to the free flow of Canadian products. Instead, numerous technical issues, some of a spurious nature, have cropped up when Canadian agri-food exporters have attempted to access the EU market. Exports have stagnated, while European food products have flowed here in increasing volumes.

During the negotiations, I spoke with a senior Canadian grain merchant, and he had nothing but skepticism for the deal because to him, from decades of experience, the EU doesn’t want imports unless it desperately needs them. It will find ways to block access if it can, he had concluded.

I spoke with a number of people involved with agri-food exports last week, and the sense I got was that they want action from Ottawa. Nobody is expecting the Europeans to rein in their recalcitrant member states, such as Italy, which is still illegally squeezing Canadian durum with country-of-origin labelling rules.

They don’t expect Eurocrats to act in the boy-scout way that Canada sometimes does, naively acting in good faith regardless of domestic concerns.

But they do expect the federal government’s ministers, trade negotiators and even the prime minister to tackle EU obstructionism with the same admirable energy, commitment and courage with which they confronted an obstreperous U.S. administration in the NAFTA renegotiations.

The sense I’ve gotten from federal officials dealing with the Canada-EU trade situation is one of frustration and annoyance. However, there seems to be little urgency in resolving the situation or in bringing it to a head.

That’s what I heard from the export-related people I spoke with. The government understands the situation, is rightly frustrated with EU behaviour, but doesn’t seem motivated to get on top of it and try to fix things. There’s just no urgency to deal with this problem.

It’s time to change that. This is an urgent matter and needs to be treated with urgency. If our present trade deals aren’t capable of being enforced in the normal course of things, then we need to bring bigger guns to bear.

We shouldn’t be too surprised with the EU’s behaviour. It’s the kind of velvet-gloved, stiletto-armed approach that drove the United Kingdom to ditch EU membership. With CETA we’re getting a much closer view of how the EU operates and it’s not always a pleasant sight.

It’s been easy to be outraged by China. Its actions and behaviour are crude, ham-handed and visibly arrogant. With the EU, it takes a little more observing to notice that its stated ideals don’t always match up with its actions.

But now we’ve had three years of experience with our new relationship with the EU, and it’s time for the federal government to take on European intransigence with a couple of tools it used so well with NAFTA: urgency and commitment.

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