Prime Minister Stephen Harper begins a five-day trip to Europe on Tuesday, with his first stop coming in Belgium to talk trade with the head of the European Union.


Prime Minister Stephen Harper waves before boarding his plane in Ottawa on Tuesday as he departs for a five-day, four-country visit to Europe. ((Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press))

Canada is in the midst of tough negotiations with the EU to secure a free-trade deal. Those discussions are expected to continue for at least another year, but Harper's visit will give him a chance to negotiate some of the broad issues in person, the CBC's James Cudmore reported.

The prime minister will also visit the Canadian military cemetery in the Netherlands on Thursday to observe the 65th anniversary of the liberation of the country from the Nazis. 

He will end his trip by meeting German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin to discuss the upcoming G8 and G20 summits in Canada.

Harper's itinerary also includes a meeting with Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, who is in a fight for his political life with a general election just a month away. Balkenende's coalition government collapsed in February after he lost a debate about extending the Dutch mission in Afghanistan.

It's unusual for a Canadian prime minister to meet with a foreign leader in the middle of an election campaign. But Harper spokesman Dimitri Soudas said the prime minister won't meddle in Dutch affairs.

"Obviously, the prime minister has no intention of making any public statement or endorsement either way," Soudas told CBC News. "This is a decision the Dutch people will obviously make."

Harper will also fly to Zagreb for the first official visit to Croatia by a Canadian prime minister.

Croatia is now a member of NATO and a partner in Afghanistan, and is looking forward to one day joining the EU. Harper's visit there appears aimed at lending support to that goal, the CBC's Cudmore said.

With files from CBC's James Cudmore