CETA trade deal unlikely to face ballot box, ministers say

Federal ministers say the text of Canada's free trade agreement with Europe will be available within the next few months, but Canadians may not be able to vote on it before it gets ratified.

Parameters of Canada-EU deal signed last week won't change, Trade Minister Ed Fast says

Trade Minister Ed Fast, left, Minister of State for Small Business Maxime Bernier and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, right, held a news conference at an Ottawa store Monday to sell the government's agreement in principle on a trade deal with the European Union. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Canadians will soon get a chance to view the text of the recently announced trade deal with the European Union, but aren't likely to have an opportunity to pronounce final judgment in an election campaign.

Conservative ministers began the sales-pitch phase of the new Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement at a news conference Monday, announcing a series of cross-country events to demonstrate the benefits of the deal.

But it was unclear just how much input ordinary Canadians who are not part of stakeholder organizations will be able to provide, or whether they will be given a formal avenue to express their views.

NDP trade critic Don Davies said what the government is planning at the moment is not nearly sufficient, given the boast that the EU deal is arguably the biggest Canada has negotiated — more sweeping than free trade with the U.S. or NAFTA — at least in terms of influence, if not direct impact on the economy.

"Canadians have a right to be consulted in a meaningful way ... and in a way that allows us to inject some of that input into the agreement," said Davies.

"This is part of their behind-closed doors, secretive, let-insiders-have-input approach to trade."

The NDP has reserved final judgment on the deal until they see the final text, something that may not be available for several months.

But International Trade Minister Ed Fast said the parameters of the deal are set and won't change.

The provinces and territories were invited to the negotiating table, and “hundreds of stakeholders” were consulted during the talks, Fast said in an interview with CBC News Network's Lang & O’Leary Exchange. He said there is universal support for CETA by the provinces and territories.

“We have been working very closely with the provinces and the territories to make sure the outcome reflects their interests and reflects Canadian interests,” he said.

“At the end of the day, it took a little longer, but we got the deal that Canada needed."

He estimated 18 months to two years for the “legal scrub” and translation of the documents, but said the government wants to get it into effect as quickly as possible.

“Once it’s in force, immediately 98 per cent of tariffs are eliminated across a wide array of goods and we know this is going to be a huge benefit to Canadians. The EU market is the largest in the world, 500 million consumers, $17-trillion GDP, larger than the U.S. GDP,” Fast said.

"We’re advising businesses to position themselves right now to take advantage of a host of new opportunities that we’re providing for them."

Call for debate

Earlier Monday, Fast and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird brushed aside questions of whether the government would wait to ratify the deal until after the next election.

Canadians got a chance to vote in a general election before ratification of the country's two previous big trade accords — the deal with the U.S. in 1988 and NAFTA in 1993.

"During the last election we made it very clear what our government's trade agenda was going to be ... Canadians knew when they voted (for the Conservatives) we would be moving forward to implement this trade agreement," said Fast.

He said legislation would be tabled in the Commons and there would be a "fulsome" debate before it is passed, but repeated Prime Minister Stephen Harper's remarks that there would be no substantive changes permitted.

Fast has scheduled an event with the Canadian Association of Importers and Exporters in Mississauga on Tuesday, and at the Port of Halifax on Wednesday, an official said.

The Council of Canadians, which opposes the pact, said the government's plan is no substitute for a legitimate debate on the merits of the deal.

The group wants the government to launch public hearings that would give Canadians a chance to shape the contents of the agreement.

The deal, which was announced by Harper and European Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso last week, is the culmination of four hard years of negotiations and — if implemented by both sides — may go down as one of the government's most important successes.

It will also likely form a major plank of the Conservatives' platform even it is ratified before the election, backstopping the argument that the party is capable of delivering on its ambitious agenda to expand trade opportunities around the world.

Estimates from Europe suggest it could take the 28-member EU up to two years to approve, which would place ratification there at about the same point in time as the election in Canada, in October 2015.

At this point the Conservatives clearly see the issue as a winner for the party.

In his first question period appearance Monday since Parliament resumed last week, Harper and his ministers repeatedly chided both the NDP and Liberals for focusing on the Senate scandal in their questions rather than on something "substantial" like the trade deal.

"In the meantime, the government is, of course, focused on making sure we create jobs and growth for Canadians, including the biggest trade agreement that we have ever had," Harper said.

Numbers questioned

By the numbers, the government claims the deal would create about 80,000 new jobs and add $12 billion to the country's gross domestic product, although some industry leaders say the deal opens up far greater potential for exporters and investors.

Some economists, particularly those on the left side of the political spectrum, say those numbers are too generous.

There is, however, no disputing that the agreement is an impressive achievement in terms of scope.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, left, and President of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso signed an agreement in principle on free-trade agreement in Brussels on Friday. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Unlike previous trade deals negotiated by Canada, it touches on virtually every aspect of economic life and goes well beyond the reduction or elimination of tariffs. The agreement extends patent protection on pharmaceuticals, opens channels for services, banking and professionals, allows open bidding on most government contracts, including at the previously excluded provincial and local levels, and makes significant inroads on lowering barriers in agriculture, one of the most protected sectors in the world.

"Our government will be demonstrating very clearly in the coming days and weeks just how transformational this agreement is for Canadians," said Fast.

"Indeed the elimination of 98 per cent of all EU tariffs on the first day that this trade agreement comes into force will translate into increased profits and opportunities for Canadian businesses of all sizes in every part of our country."

Except for dairy farmers, which stand to face more competition from a doubled quota on European cheeses, most economic sectors have already declared their support for the deal.

With files from CBC News

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