Trudeau's Europe trip dominated by trade and Trump

Justin Trudeau ended his European visit with a key note speech at a black tie dinner during which he warned an audience of Germany's business and political elite that corporate practices had to change if future trade deals were going to be possible.

PM issues warning about future of free trade

During the black-tie dinner at city hall in Hamburg Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave a speech encouraging business and political leaders to bring long-term thinking to trade deals. (Axel Heimken/Associated Press)

Justin Trudeau ended his European visit with a keynote speech at a black tie dinner during which he warned an audience of Germany's business and political elite that corporate practices had to change if future trade deals were going to be possible.

Speaking to a sea of tuxedoes and ball gowns — and wearing a tuxedo himself — Trudeau sharpened his now familiar pitch to help the middle class.

"For business leaders, it's about thinking beyond your short-term responsibility to your shareholders. You have a equally important long-term responsibility to your workers, their families and the communities that support you," Trudeau said.

"Whether you're a business or a government, it's time to realize that this anger and anxiety we see washing over the world is coming from a very real place and it is not going away."

The speech to the annual St. Matthew's Dinner at Hamburg's luxurious city hall underscored Trudeau's reason for making this trip. The prime minister wanted to lean in hard on his pro-free-trade message, and pitch progressive trade deals as the solution to middle class economic anxiety, rather than the cause.

At a black-tie dinner in Hamburg's luxurious city hall, Trudeau highlighted what he sees as the benefits of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) between Canada and the European Union. (David Cochrane/CBC)
He did this primarily by highlighting what he sees as the benefits of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement between Canada and the European Union.

But every sales pitch on this trip came with the warning that ordinary people had to benefit from deals like CETA or future trade deals would be impossible. 

"If we are successful, CETA will become the blueprint for all ambitious future trade deals. If we are not, this could very well be one of the last," Trudeau said in a speech to the European Union Parliament in Strasbourg.

An important ally

Trudeau has a strong ally in that argument in German Chancellor Angela Merkel — a political relationship that becomes more important for Canada each day. In a conflicted and divided Europe, Merkel is a champion of free trade.

The two leaders met for a casual dinner in a Berlin restaurant on Thursday night. On Friday — after their formal meeting — they presented a strong defence of CETA as anti-CETA protestors demonstrated across the street.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel presents Trudeau with a photo that shows him posing with his father, then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, when he was 10 years old. (Guido Bergmann/Getty Images)

"It is not just about trade, but also about social conditions, consumer protection and about many areas that set a standard for the future of agreements to come," Merkel said through a translator.

The pair presented a common front on a contentious issue. But it's a conversation that is influenced by many factors.

Trudeau and Merkel pay respects at a memorial to the victims of the attack that took place at the Christmas Market in Berlin. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)
After their meeting, Trudeau and Merkel visited the site of the Berlin Christmas market where a Tunisian asylum seeker rammed a truck into a crowd killing 12 people in December.

Attacks like it have many Europeans arguing for tighter borders. Right-wing populism is on the rise across the continent and countries — including Germany — face difficult elections this year.

The EU parliament voted 58 per cent to support CETA the day before Trudeau arrived in Europe. But there is still strong opposition to the trade deal in both right wing and left wing parties.

Labelled 'the anti-Trump'

Trudeau's hope is that Canada's efforts on issues such as trade, the environment and refugees can offer some reassurance to skeptical Europeans. And while that message got noticed, it also got interpreted in ways the prime minister may not have intended.

On Friday morning Die Welt, one of the Germany's major national papers, splashed Trudeau across its front page and called him "the anti-Trump." It's a label Trudeau has downplayed as he seeks to build a positive relationship with the new U.S. president.

Trudeau never raised Donald Trump's name in any of his prepared remarks. But every time he was asked about the controversial president he offered assurances that it will be possible to work with Trump.

During a news conference with Antonio Tajani, the president of the European Parliament, Trudeau even praised Trump's stated desire to help the American middle class — even though that promise is based heavily on protectionist sentiment and the literal building of walls. 

"What I saw from the American president was a focus on getting things done for the people who supported him and who believe in him, while demonstrating that good relations with one's neighbours is a great way to get things done," Trudeau said in Strasbourg.

A bridge between continents

Trudeau has a lot riding on maintaining a good relationship with Trump and it appears Europe does as well. Tajani argued that for reasons of geography, history and personality, Trudeau can act a bridge between the continents.

"I think the relations between Europe and Canada are very, very important for paving the way for better relations between the European Union and the United States of America. They are friend. We want to work with the Americans," Tajani said. 

That final point illustrates the versatility of Trudeau's well-worn message about helping the middle class. He can repeat it standing next to politicians as different Donald Trump and Angela Merkel and find common ground with both of them. 

About the Author

David Cochrane is a senior reporter in CBC's Parliamentary bureau. He previously wrote for CBC Newfoundland and Labrador.