One thing came across loud and clear in Brussels as Prime Minister Stephen Harper hailed the new trade agreement with Europe.

He cares.

This is a signature issue for Harper the economist. Expanding Canada's trade is what he's there for — or so he has suggested, again and again, in his speeches over the years.

Critics have been entitled to say that his drive for more trade has not always gone according to plan. The Keystone XL pipeline. The Northern Gateway pipeline. The free trade agreements that were always promised and rarely materialized.

Until now, the huge European accord was in that category: four years of talk and no deal. And, even now, it's not final — only an agreement in principle. But when Harper called it "the biggest deal our country has ever made … a historic win for Canada," it was personal. He believes it will be finalized and it will be a part of his legacy.

In Brussels, his triumphant news conference did not go seamlessly. Harper twice referred to his counterpart. Jose Manuel Barroso, as "Juan Manuel." The veteran president of the European Commission winced a little, but no more.

'Before the next election'

What Harper focused on, though, was the sense that his opponents on free trade are in retreat.

"I am certainly confident of its adoption in Canada," he said.

"I think anyone who opposes it will lose and make a big historic mistake politically for so doing. And I anticipate that, yes, it will be in place before the next election."

Harper was not done. He went out of his way to return, unbidden, to this topic.

"Ideological opposition to free trade in Canada is really, today, part of a very small part of the political spectrum — a very small and extreme part — and for that reason I think you will find very few Canadians who are opposed in principle to having a free-trade agreement with Europe, which is one of the most progressive organizations in the world."

For Harper, then, the future belongs to the free traders.

He pledges to compensate any cheese producers who suffer. But they won't stop the train.