Politics

Canada-EU trade deal delay just a 'hiccup,' ex-PM Brian Mulroney says

Former prime minister Brian Mulroney said Tuesday that he remains hopeful Canada's trade deal with the European Union can come to pass. His own experience with NAFTA proves politicians can change their minds, he said.

Former PM remembers Canada's NAFTA debate, says it would be a 'shame' if Belgium's Wallonia derailed CETA

Former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, centre, joined former Quebec Premier Jean Charest, left and Pierre Pettigrew, Canada's special envoy at a breakfast event in Montreal Tuesday to promote the Canada-EU trade agreement. Mulroney called the latest delay towards signing the deal a 'hiccup.' (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

Former prime minister Brian Mulroney said Tuesday that he remains hopeful Canada's trade deal with the European Union can come to pass.

"It would be a shame if it were knocked off balance by Wallonie (Wallonia)," he said, referring to the Belgian regional legislatures that last week refused to endorse Belgium's signature on the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA.)

"Every once in a while you run into a hiccup in these things," he told reporters at a breakfast event in Montreal. "This is a hiccup, but I don't think it's going to derail such an important negotiation."

Mulroney had nothing but praise for the Canadian government's approach, saying it's doing the right thing having former Liberal trade minister Pierre Pettigrew involved as its envoy and having Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard lobby the French-speaking Wallonian holdouts. 

His own experience with North American Free Trade Agreement proves politicians can change their minds, he said.

"I think they can move the furniture around," he said of efforts to reach a compromise before the European Council meets at the end of the week.

"You may remember that having campaigned against free trade and NAFTA, that Mr. Chretien, for example, said he'd never sign NAFTA. And he signed it. Why? Well because [former U.S. president Bill] Clinton made a few little changes at the end that the new government was able to use to say, 'well, it's different.'"

"Well, it wasn't different," said Mulroney, whose previous Conservative government had led negotiations for the North American Free Trade Agreement before it was voted out of office. "But it was enough to be able to justify a change in position."

'Champions of compromises'

Speaking outside the same event, Pettigrew ruled out changing the text of the agreement to please Wallonia.

"The deal is the deal. It's there, it's on the table. It's well-known," he said.

But work continues on drafting a joint interpretative declaration with the European Commission that's meant to win over the remaining doubters.

Minister-President of Wallonia Paul Magnette (left) and his vice-president Jean-Claude Marcourt were part of a vote last Friday that saw their regional legislature effectively veto Canada's trade deal with the European Union. The Wallonian legislators represent only 3.5 million of the over 500 million people in the EU. (Francois Lenoir/Reuters)

"Hopefully our friends from Wallonia will realize that that interpretative declaration can reassure them with some of the challenges that they have and some of the resistance that they have around labour standards and human rights, and challenges with the investor-state chapter," the envoy said.

"We've worked very hard in these last few months to bring reassurances that we in Canada share those same progressive views," he said. "I hope that this interpretative declaration will allow the Walloons to feel more comfortable."

"It's too good for both sides to walk by," he said.

The European Union's ambassador to Canada, Marie-Anne Coninsx, said that she was confident a solution would be found.

"We have no other option," she said before giving a noon-hour speech in Ottawa.

Coninsx, who is from Belgium, said her country is "known for being able to solve the most complicated issues."

"I'm confident that it will do also in this case," she said. "I think we are the champions of compromises."

"We have an obligation to our people to respond to their concerns," she said. 

'Ball now in Europe's court'

The ambassador described the declaration — which has not yet been made public in its final form, although it has been circulated to member countries — as "legally-binding text which will be annexed to the treaty."

"It's not changing CETA, It's just clarifying things which for us are obvious, but obviously are not obvious for the public. Yet."

Protesters like this one in Leipzig, Germany last month have warned that CETA opens the door to an even more controversial trade deal with the United States. Proponents of CETA say that's not the case: Canada's deal is progressive and substantially different from what the U.S. wants. (Jens Meyer/Associated Press)

After a cabinet meeting on Parliament Hill, International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters that her Blackberry froze Tuesday morning from all the messages she was receiving after ministers at the Council of the European Union in Luxembourg were unable to reach a consensus and approve signing CETA at a Canada-EU summit planned for Brussels Oct. 27.

Was Canada ready to give up, seeing the EU's inability to move forward?

"Absolutely not," she said. "We are deeply, energetically engaged in this."

"At the end of the day, Canada has done its job on this agreement," Freeland said. "The ball now is in Europe's court. We're doing everything we can to support Europe and I remain cautiously optimistic."

Freeland waits while Europe decides CETA's fate 1:16

'You have to be an optimist'

Freeland's EU counterpart, Cecilia Malmstrom, joked with reporters in Luxembourg about the unusual length of the ministers' discussions Tuesday.

"You don't know how much coffee we had," the European trade commissioner said.

"I think if you're in this business you have to be an optimist. It's a duty," she said.

But when ratifying trade agreements drags on too long they lose their relevance, she said.

The ministers talked about how in a globalized world, the EU needs to revisit its broader approach to trade negotiations and learn lessons from this experience with Canada, she said.

Peter Ziga, the Slovakian minister of the economy who chaired Tuesday's meeting as part of the EU's rotating presidency, said the good news was that all countries were still moving toward the objective of signing CETA.

"Maybe it's not a sprint, but it's not a marathon either," he said.

Wallonia President Paul Magnette said Wednesday that "we cannot sign by Friday," when the two-day meeting of the European Council will end.

The deal will not proceed without the approval of all 28 member states, including Belgium.

Magnette told TV network RTBF that despite progress over the past few days "it is insufficient. And you cannot say now: 'you have 3 days to accept.'"

With files from The Canadian Press

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