Canada will "vigorously" defend its sealing industry in the wake of a European ban on seal products — but not at the expense of free trade talks, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Wednesday.

"Canada will, both domestically and in front of international tribunals, vigorously defend our sealing industry," said Harper, who arrived in Prague for trade talks with the European Union just hours after the ban was endorsed.

Despite that tough talk, however, Harper also sent a clear signal that Canada's defence of the hunt, which has long been a sore spot in Europe, would not come at the expense of one of its most critical trading relationships.

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A seal hunter clubs a harp seal on a ice floe in the Gulf of St. Lawrence Saturday, April 2, 2005. Animal welfare activists are rejoicing after the European Parliament passed a bill that will impose a ban on seal products. ((THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward))

"I do think it's important in relationships, particularly relationships as important as the one with the European Union, that the relationship become not about only one issue," he said.

Harper began a high-profile meeting with European business and political leaders in the Czech Republic on Wednesday to launch talks between Canada and the European Union. The two economies exchanged $111-billion in two-way trade in 2008.

A recent study estimated Europe would gain $18.5 billion a year and Canada about $13 billion by cutting restrictions on services trade, removing tariffs and reducing non-tariff barriers.

In addition to trade discussions, the Canadian government contingent is also concluding negotiations on a comprehensive air transport agreement with the EU.

Canadian and EU business leaders have expressed concern the spat over the seal hunt could hinder progress in free trade talks, the CBC's Tom Parry reported from Prague.

"What we're hearing from business people here is that they don't want something like that to derail larger negotiations," Parry said.

Harper's statement makes it clear that Canada is not prepared to abort wider trade discussions for the sake of the sealing dispute.

"If we were to make our trade relations with the European Union only the sealing issue, we will never have any trading relations, because as we know this is a disagreement of long standing, one of which I suspect we may never see eye to eye," Harper said

The EU ban, which still requires the approval of European governments, passed with overwhelming support from European parliamentarians and took direct aim at Canada's hunt, calling it "inherently inhumane."

International Trade Minister Stockwell Day, who is accompanying Harper to Prague, has vowed Canada will challenge the ban at the World Trade Organization if necessary.

Day said the federal government will not stand by as the livelihoods of some 6,000 Canadian families and a multimillion-dollar industry are under threat.

Premier accuses Europe of hypocrisy

Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams accused the European Union of hypocrisy and said he would prefer to see the commercial hunt continue.

"Europeans should have a good, hard look at themselves," he said Tuesday.

"They're quite prepared to come over here and do business with us on the oil and gas side and other very, very lucrative industries. They're prepared to sell their wine and other products here in Newfoundland and Labrador and Canada, and yet they're after us on this particular one when this is a humane harvest and they know it."

Reacting to the ban, the House of Commons voted in favour of a non-binding motion that the Olympic Games in Vancouver be used to promote products from the seal hunt. The Bloc Quebecois-sponsored motion suggests that Canada's Olympic uniform include at least one seal product, likely the skin.

For years, animal rights groups have intensely lobbied European politicians to implement a ban. At times they enlisted the support of celebrities including rock legend Paul McCartney to get their message across that the Canadian hunt, the largest in the world, is cruel and unsustainable.

The European Union bill still needs the backing of EU governments. But officials said that's only a formality since national envoys had already endorsed the legislation prior to Tuesday's vote. The ban is expected to take effect in October.

While it allows for the continued shipment of seal products through Europe, promotion of those same products would be prohibited. Sealing industry experts fear that would shut off access to the runways of Italy and France, countries that are highly influential in determining global fashion trends in the larger markets of Russia and China.

The ban would apply to all products and processed goods derived from seals, including fur, meat, oil blubber and even omega-3 pills made from seal oil.

The new EU rule, however, would offer narrow exemptions to Inuit communities from Canada and Greenland and elsewhere to continue their traditional hunts. But it bars them from a large-scale trading of their pelts, and other seal goods in Europe.

Another exemption would allow for non-commercial and "small-scale" hunts to manage seal populations, but seal products derived from those hunts would not be allowed to enter the EU.

Canada had set a quota of 280,000 harp seals for this year's hunt, but only about 60,000 have been killed because of dwindling markets for seal products.

Last year, Canada exported about $5.5 million of seal products to the EU.

 

With files from The Canadian Press