Harper and Hollande scoff at deadline for trade talks
'I don't think it's in our interest to set a deadline,' Canadian PM says and French president agrees
If there was any urgency to Stephen Harper's trade talks with French President François Hollande, he wasn't acknowledging it at the two leaders' joint press conference on Friday.
For the past several weeks in Brussels, Canadian and European Union negotiators were said to be sweating over the final details on talks alternately billed as both stalled and close to an agreement.
But the two political leaders who face the tough, final calls on the deal dispensed handily with a reporter's question probing why things were taking so long and what the final obstacles were.
"Canada is not establishing a deadline. I don't think it's in our interest to set a deadline," Harper said, consistent with other recent remarks downplaying any urgency for Canada.
The Harper government had set a deadline of the end of last year for the talks, but missed it as talks dragged on through the winter and spring.
"We will keep negotiating until we get a [deal] that we believe is in the best interest of all Canadians. And we're not there yet. And that's why we continue to talk."
Speaking next in French, Hollande agreed with Harper that not having a deadline is the right approach.
Little insight on final hurdles
Neither leader identified any specific sticking points that remain. Hollande said that it was inevitable obstacles would appear but that both sides wanted to get over them.
Despite the lack of specifics from the two leaders, both did acknowledge the trade talks figured prominently in their discussions. International Trade Minister Ed Fast is with Harper in Paris for the talks.
French beef farmers in particular are said to be resisting one of Canada's key demands: access to the European red meat market.
Hollande said that the EU Commission, which negotiates on behalf of France and the other member countries, is working towards a good agreement on not only agriculture but other areas too.
Harper said that France had been a "big supporter and proponent" from the outset, as "one of the most forward-leaning countries in Europe in terms of promoting this agreement."
Harper also said in French that the leaders "cannot negotiate in public."
"There are obviously always in negotiations some areas that are more difficult than others but both of our countries look to considerable gains from an eventual agreement and we will continue to work with that agenda in mind."
Co-operation on security, research, human rights
Harper and Hollande announced a wide-ranging "Enhanced Co-operation Agenda" at the conclusion of their meeting at the French president's Élysée Palace, which includes:
- Canada-France action plan on competitiveness, innovation, trade and investment.
- Scientific, regulatory, industrial and technological co-operation in the area of the environment, the fight against climate change and the dismantling of nuclear installations.
- Scientific co-operation to support economic development and safer navigation in the Arctic as well as repatriate Inuit bones from French museum collections to Canada.
- High-level foreign policy and defence collaboration, including more consular collaboration around the world.
- Co-operation on national security, including countering threats from terrorism, drug trafficking, human trafficking and organized crime; counselling and professional training for modern-day veterans and a treaty to allow security officers on board civilian aircraft.
- Joint efforts to promote human rights and development, including freedom of religion and beliefs, combating violence against women, decriminalizing homosexuality and further implementation of the G8 Muskoka initiatives on maternal, child health.
Both leaders were also asked about the latest developments in Syria, with Hollande speaking out more strongly in favour of intervention than Harper, who continued to emphasize that Canada cannot act alone despite the concerns it shares with its allies.
Harper paid tribute to the French president's leadership during the recent conflict in Mali. Canada supported France by providing logistical support with its military cargo planes.
"You showed tremendous leadership at a time when no one else in the world was stepping up," Harper said. "It would be hard to overstate the importance of the French actions in that country."
Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney was also part of Friday's meetings, as Canada and France prepare for joint commemorations to mark the centenary of the First World War next year.
Earlier Friday, Harper also met with the secretary general of La Francophonie, Abdou Diouf.
A readout provided by the prime minister's office says the discussions sought ways for La Francophonie countries to promote economic development, good governance and human rights. International security concerns in Mali and elsewhere in the Sahel region of Africa were also part of the talks.