International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland couldn’t contain herself any longer.
“We did it!” she said, hugging colleagues after posing behind the massive, foot-high legal document Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and European Union leaders had just signed.
Canada’s trade agreement with the 28 member states of the European Union can now proceed for ratification.
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Sunday’s signing brings to a conclusion two weeks of high drama, after the southern, French-speaking Belgian region of Wallonia refused to approve signing the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, also known as CETA, at a Canada-Europe summit originally planned for last Thursday.
After a deal was reached to bring the Walloons on board last week, things were supposed to be clear sailing through to Sunday’s rescheduled signing.
CETA had one final surprise in store for Trudeau — a mechanical failure onboard his government plane Saturday night, forcing it to return to Ottawa and delay Sunday’s agenda by several hours.
What’s a few more hours for a deal that’s been in the works since 2009?
“What patience,” exclaimed European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker as he embraced the arriving Trudeau at EU headquarters in Brussels.
At a news conference after the signing, a Belgian journalist asked Trudeau what he would say to Wallonia.
“The fact that throughout, people were asking tough questions of a deal that will have a significant impact on our economies, and giving us the opportunity to demonstrate that that impact will be positive, is a good thing,” Trudeau replied.
“And for me, whether I be here today or three days ago is not going to make a difference on the real impact it’s going to have,” he said.
“Hard things are hard,” he told reporters as the event concluded.
Most tariffs eliminated
The signing ceremony kicks off a ratification process that may see 98 per cent of the agreement provisionally applied next year.
Trudeau said consumers and businesses would immediately feel the benefits. Speaking ahead of Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s fall economic statement Tuesday, he tied the progress the agreement represented with his government’s efforts to improve the economy for Canada’s middle class.
Jobs in exporting sectors pay better, he said.
“We are confident that demonstrating that trade is good for the middle classes … will make sure that everybody gets that this is a good thing for our economies and that it is also a good thing for the world,” Trudeau said.
CETA is an example of how trade agreements can be “more inclusive and more progressive,” he said.
But the work is just beginning on giving Canadians the tools they need to be able to realize the benefits of the deal, he said.
In some areas, the kind of regulatory harmonization between Canada and the European Union envisioned by the deal remains unrealized.
Ratification not guaranteed
Even though it’s now signed, CETA is far from the the finish line. Ratification is not guaranteed.
After the news conference, Trudeau met with Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament (equivalent to a North American Speaker), who will be integral to making sure ratification goes smoothly.
Trudeau thanked Schulz for his leadership on CETA, saying he wanted to “thank him in advance” for the work he will do to get it “ratified quickly.”
Officials are optimistic they have enough members of the European Parliament onside, but the legislature in Brussels can be unpredictable at times.
Civil society groups still working to oppose the deal are expected to focus their efforts next on trying to defeat the ratification vote in Europe’s parliament.
In Canada, Trudeau’s cabinet will ratify the deal. But implementation legislation will be introduced in the House of Commons and provincial legislatures across Canada in the coming months, to change the necessary laws to bring the agreement into force.
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Aspects of CETA, such as opening municipal government procurement to international bidders, involve provincial jurisdiction, so federal and provincial governments worked together through the long negotiation process.
A planned meeting with Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard had to be cancelled because of the compressed schedule forced by the problem with Trudeau’s plane.
Couillard arrived at Sunday’s meetings with former Quebec premier Jean Charest, one of the early drivers of the trade negotiations with Europe, and Pierre-Marc Johnson, the negotiator who worked closely with Canada’s chief negotiator Steve Verheul to make sure the final text was acceptable to the province.
No Wallonias here.
Protesters try to disrupt arrivals
Outside EU headquarters, a rowdy group of about 250 anti-CETA protesters gathered to block the front entrance as riot police watched. Red paint was smeared on the building.
Police took away about 15 people, but did not break up the protest, a television news reporter for the Associated Press said.
The group had dispersed by the time journalists and officials left a few hours later.
Negotiations towards the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) began under Stephen Harper’s former Conservative government in 2009.
The text was finalized two years ago, but the EU hit pause on signing and ratification as opposition to parts of the deal built across Europe, particularly in the face of fresh concerns about similar trade negotiations between the EU and the United States.
International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland agreed last winter to reopen its controversial investor-state dispute resolution clauses, replacing them with a new European investor court system it hoped to put in place, not just for Canadian investors, but in any subsequent trading relationships.
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Civil society groups, however, believe this part of the deal not only wasn`t needed between like-minded democratic partners, but was a threat to the sovereign ability of countries to regulate in areas such as environmental or labour policies without fear of being sued by foreign corporations.
Pressure remains on left and centre-left parties across Europe to reject the deal. Far right nationalist parties also oppose ratification.
“Facts and figures won’t stand up alone,” European Council president Donald Tusk said Sunday, trying to convey how difficult it is in the current political climate to explain to people that trade is a good thing.
Especially when they’re worried about their jobs or their businesses in the face of new imports.
Federal compensation programs targeting several Canadian industries now facing such threats are expected to be announced soon.