A planned EU-Canada free trade deal moved closer to reality on Tuesday after a key committee advised the European Parliament to give its backing after months of protests and heated debate.

The EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) is seen as a test of Europe's ability to forge future trade accords and as a counterweight to anticipated protectionism under new U.S. President Donald Trump.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters at the cabinet retreat in Calgary that this was "an important moment for Canada."

"It's more than just a free trade treaty with Canada. It's a statement about how we relate with the rest of the world," said Sorin Moisa, CETA co-ordinator for the centre-left Socialists and Democrats Group, whose members have been divided over the pact.

"We want to shape rather than withdraw from the world, and all the more so after Trump," he told Reuters in an interview.

When it comes to trade, we're choosing Trudeau over Trump. - David Martin, member of European Parliament

CETA still needs approval from the European Parliament to enter into force and lawmakers in its international trade committee voted 25-15 urging it to do so. The full parliament is due to give its verdict in mid-February.

In a debate on Monday, committee members backing the accord repeatedly warned of the threat of greater protectionism under Trump, who has withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and plans to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico.

EU trade commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom told lawmakers Canada was a welcome partner in uncertain and difficult times.

"We have an important friend and ally who seems to be at least partly disengaging from the international scene, promoting less trade, more protectionism," she said of the United States.

China Trump TPP Consequences

President Donald Trump signed an executive order Monday to make it official that the U.S. would not ratify the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact. U.S. trade negotiations with the European Union are also in doubt. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

David Martin, a Scottish Labour member of the European Parliament, issued a press release declaring that "when it comes to trade, we're choosing Trudeau over Trump."

"We rejected protectionism," he said in an interview with CBC News. "We have a different view of how we handle globalization.

"We have criticisms — and frankly, some of our criticisms are exactly the same as President Trump. But we've come to a completely opposite conclusion," Martin said. 

Martin said now is a good time for the EU to now refocus on negotiating equally progressive bilateral deals with countries previously hoping to make economic gains through the Trans-Pacific Partnership, something Trump spiked by executive order on Monday.

"At a time when your southern neighbour is turning inwards, both Canada and the EU continue to look outwards and treat each other as vital and important partners in the global world and I think that's got to be positive," Martin said.

International Trade Minister François-Philippe Champagne's office welcomed this "important step," telling CBC News in a statement that his top priority is ensuring CETA enters into force as soon as possible.

"CETA will also provide a strong foundation for Canada and the EU to demonstrate leadership on an inclusive, progressive approach to global trade," the statement said.

Provisional application within months?

The EU and Canada concluded negotiations more than two years ago and eventually signed the treaty in October, but only after opposition from a region of Belgium.

Even if the 751-seat European Parliament votes for CETA, it would only enter force provisionally. But this provisional application is expected to bring well over 90 per cent of the deal into force, possibly within months.

Canada must pass Bill C-30, its implementation bill, and change some provincial legislation before provisional application can take effect.

All but one of the EU's 28 member states are expected to hold ratification votes and, in some cases, referendums in their respective jurisdictions before the deal is completely implemented. This process may take years.

Controversial reforms to the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) clauses, other investment protection provisions, parts of the financial services chapter on portfolio investments and a few clauses that touch on criminal law (member state jurisdiction) will wait for full ratification.

But most of what affects Canadian businesses and jobs — market access provisions, tariff cuts (both immediate and phased-in) and government procurement rules — will come into force provisionally. 

CETA and the larger planned EU-U.S. Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) have proved contentious, drawing criticism from trade unions and protest groups that say it will give more power to multinationals and lead to a race to the bottom in standards.

TTIP's future is in doubt now, given the lack of enthusiasm of the new Trump administration for broad-ranging trade negotiations.

With files from CBC's Janyce McGregor