Chrystia Freeland courts a distracted EU partner on CETA vote

The U.S. is not a partner in the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement (CETA.) But Canada's trade minister was forced to talk about the American elephant in the room when she lobbied members of the European Parliament for their votes on Canada's trade deal last week.

Trade minister distances Canada from anti-U.S. sentiment: 'Talk to us in our own right. OK guys?'

Activists from an anti-globalization group protest against the Canada-EU trade deal in Berlin. International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland is trying to persuade European lawmakers to ratify the agreement. (Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters)

The United States is not a partner in the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement.

Really, it's not. Chrystia Freeland wants that clear.

But the trade minister was forced to address the American elephant in the room in Brussels last week while lobbying members of the European Parliament for votes on Canada's trade deal. 

"Sometimes when Canadians and Europeans speak we want to just have a tête-à-tête, but it becomes a ménage à trois. Let's not make our relationship a ménage à trois," she told the EU Parliament's international trade committee.

Highlighting Canada's independent policies on refugees, climate change and the Iraq war, Freeland's effort to consummate CETA made a simple plea: "We're a G7 country. Talk to us in our own right. OK guys? Please."

The long engagement between Canada and the EU on CETA faces ratification votes in Brussels and Ottawa within a year. Freeland hit Berlin and Brussels this month, with more capitals to come.

"I would love unanimous support in your Parliament. I'm gunning for it in mine," Freeland said. 

"You are not going to get a better deal. And this deal will be a very important precedent for progressive trade deals going forward."

That's the pitch. But it's also a hitch.

Precedent or Trojan Horse?

Last weekend, anti-trade protesters hit the streets of Hannover, Germany, ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama's talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Civil society groups agree with Freeland that it's a precedent — but not a good one. More like a Trojan Horse: giving access to U.S. corporations with Canadian subsidiaries.

The crowd — reportedly between 35,000 and 90,000 — carried signs denouncing TTIP (the acronymn for a potential EU-U.S. deal) and CETA.

Protesters gather in Hannover, Germany, to protest the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement (CETA) between Canada and the European Union. The main slogan in the centre reads: 'Stop TTIP CETA for fair global trade.' (Markus Schreiber/Associated Press)

As the EU ambassador to Canada explained in January, opposition to Canada's deal didn't mobilize until it looked like CETA set America's stage.

Merkel's vice-chancellor, Social Democrat Sigmar Gabriel, was once the voice of this skepticism. But rewriting the controversial investor-state dispute clause has quieted that.

"The demonstrations have helped us by drawing our attention to what's at stake," Gabriel said after meeting Freeland April 14.

Did Canada capitulate?

"They thought that it was going to be a kind of a fight … but for us it was the opposite. We believe in it," Freeland said, beside him. "Certainly in our values, we feel we're a European country."

Considering Freeland chairs Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's cabinet committee on Canada-U.S. relations — and uses a picture from the Oval Office as a cover photo on Twitter — is that a bit of a slap?

'Bigger playground for lawyers'

Canada agreed to Europe's investment court proposal instead of standing by post-NAFTA improvements worked out with the U.S. during the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) talks. Doesn't that burn?

"Only if you believe a lot of people in the public and the political system in the United States even know what Canada did," said Jeffrey Schott from Washington's Peterson Institute for International Economics.

"I don't sense any strain," he said. As for the "shared values" bit, "that's what American negotiators say when they go to Europe, too." 

There are still inconsistencies in the dispute settlement processes for each deal. "It's a bigger playground for lawyers, that's for sure," Schott said, but "everybody knows the United States is not going to allow Canada to influence its negotiations with Europe."

U.S. President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel met in Hannover on Sunday. German opposition to free trade negotiations with the U.S. has been strong. (Markus Schreiber/Associated Press)

Someone tell the Europeans.

"If we succeed in [ratifying CETA], it would mean, for the negotiations with the United States, that nothing less would be acceptable," Gabriel vowed.

All aboard?

Freeland, chuffed to have Gabriel onside, told journalists on a conference call that if she were covering her Berlin visit Gabriel's swing vote would be her highlight. Hint, hint.

But he doesn't speak for every Social Democrat. Not in the Bundestag, nor Brussels, where other parties oppose it too.

German Vice-Chancellor and Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel, a Social Democrat, endorsed the Canada-EU trade deal after a revision to its controversial investor-state dispute settlement provisions. (Markus Schreiber/Associated Press)

Members of the European Parliament from the Socialists & Democrats (S&D) bloc asked Freeland more questions than she could answer Thursday. 

David Martin, a Labour MEP, said he would have voted against the deal if it hadn't changed.

"Are you listening [U.S. Trade Representative] Mike Froman?" he intoned in his Scottish accent. "Are you listening America?"

Belgian MEP Maria Arena said CETA opens the door to U.S. companies taking advantage.

"Just because we're criticizing the agreement, doesn't mean we're criticizing Canada," she said.

Austrian Karoline Graswander-Hainz asked if other chapters could be reopened. Perhaps a "third way," so they didn't have to vote yes or no?

Freeland sympathized, even saying she may share some concerns herself "to a degree." But if the EU can't do a deal with Canada, "who can we do a deal with? I mean, really?"

Committee chair Bernd Lange played off the movie Casablanca to conclude, telling Freeland "this is the beginning of a wonderful friendship."

Uncertain head count

Those fighting the ground war on both sides were left trying to cut through the fog in Brussels. 

The Canadian Cattlemen's Association says beef exports to Europe could grow to $600 million from $10 million under CETA. But until the EU certifies Canada's meat processors, new market access exists only on (unratified) paper.

Will it pass a vote?

"I don't know if anybody has a head count," the CCA's John Masswohl said. 

Council of Canadians campaigner Maude Barlow toured six European cities this month, targeting media and politicians at every stop to oppose the deal. 

Will Freeland's charm offensive work? 

Protesters set up an inflatable 'Trojan Horse' during Saturday's demonstrations in Hannover. Critics say Canada's trade deal gives the U.S. a back door to Europe. (Nigel Treblin/Reuters)

"I met with a number of Social Democrats who don't like either agreement but don't want to be the ones to kill the 'good' deal with nice Canada," Barlow wrote CBC News.

While still criticized, the investment clause rewrite provides an excuse to change sides. The debate's more heated now and the vote's tight, she said. 

"I really believe if we can delay this for six months to a year, we can stop CETA."


Janyce McGregor

Senior reporter

Janyce McGregor joined the CBC's parliamentary bureau in 2001, after starting her career with TVOntario's Studio 2. Her public broadcaster "hat trick" includes casual stints as a news and current affairs producer with the BBC's World Service in London. After two decades of producing roles, she's now a senior reporter filing for CBC Online, Radio and Television. News tips: Janyce.McGregor@cbc.ca