Italy won't ratify EU free-trade deal with Canada, says new farm minister

Italy will not ratify the European Union's free trade agreement with Canada, its new agriculture minister said on Thursday, ratcheting up an international trade spat and potentially scuppering the EU's biggest accord in years.

98% of CETA came into effect last September on a provisional basis

Quality control employee Fabrizio Giberti inspects a Parmigiano Reggiano cheese wheel among those stacked in the Credito Emiliano bank temperature-controlled vault, in Montecavolo, near Reggio Emilia, Italy. (Marco Vasini/Associated Press)

Italy will not ratify the European Union's free trade agreement with Canada, its new agriculture minister said on Thursday, ratcheting up an international trade spat and potentially scuppering the EU's biggest accord in years.

The Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) is the first major trade deal the European Union has signed since it began implementing its South Korea agreement in 2011.

In an interview with daily La Stampa, Minister Gian Marco Centinaio said the Italian government would ask the parliament not to ratify the treaty since it does not ensure sufficient protection for the country's speciality foods.

"We will not ratify the free-trade treaty with Canada because it protects only a small part of our PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) and PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) products," Centinaio told the newspaper.

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"Doubts over this agreement are shared by many of my European colleagues." In the 28-member European Union, Italy has the most food products with PDO and PGI labels, including Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and Prosciutto di Parma ham.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said she believes Italy will eventually sign on, pointing out Austria was also reluctant to ratify the deal, but eventually came around.

"I'm confident we will have full ratification in the end, and the important thing is this agreement has entered into force as an economic matter," Freeland told reporters in Washington Thursday.

Ninety-eight per cent of CETA came into effect last September on a provisional basis, sweeping away tariffs on a large number of goods and widening access to Canadian beef in Europe and EU cheese and wine in Canada.

 The deal was settled in 2016 after years of talks, but all E.U. nations must now vote on it independently.

Under CETA, Canada has recognised more than 40 Italian PDO and PGI labels out of a total of 292 for the food-obsessed country.

Coldiretti, the influential association of Italian agricultural companies, backed Centinaio's intention, saying in a statement CETA was "wrong and risky" for Italy.

It said Italian food exports, equal to 41 billion euros last year, could triple with a serious fight against international food counterfeiting.

Italy's Minister of Agriculture Gian Marco Centinaio is seen during the swearing-in ceremony at the Quirinal Palace in Rome on June 1, 2018. (Tony Gentile/Reuters)

Its supporters say it would increase trade between the partners by 20 per cent and boost the EU economy by 12 billion euros ($14 billion) a year and Canada's by $12 billion. 

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Some farm associations and critics in European states have expressed concerns about the threat of rapidly rising pork and beef imports from Canada.

Coldiretti also mentioned risks posed by the annulment of duties on Canadian wheat, a country where the herbicide glyphosate can be used.

Centinaio belongs to the far-right League party and is considered close to its leader and Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini. Salvini is emerging as the pivot in the new government that the League formed this month with the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement.

The minister was not immediately available to comment on the interview and it was not possible to get a reaction from the office of the prime minister on the issue.

Canada's International Trade Minister François-Philippe Champagne was in Italy just a few days ago to talk to the new government about the deal.

"He conveyed the benefits to the new government and together with those 12 nations who have already taken the step to ratify domestically, will continue to work on national ratification throughout the EU," said Champagne's press secretary Pierre-Olivier Herbert in an email to CBC News.

Asked about Italy's position on CETA, the European Commission said it was working closely with EU members to ensure that the EU trade accords were mutually beneficial.

The government programme that forms the basis of the League-5-Star coalition mentioned CETA, saying the executive would oppose "the aspects [of the treaty] that imply an excessive weakening of the protection of citizens' rights."

The government's programme also pledged to "protect the highest-quality products of Made in Italy."

Italy's challenge to CETA comes after U.S. President Donald Trump backed out of a joint communique agreed by Group of Seven leaders in Canada at the weekend that mentioned the need for "free, fair and mutually beneficial" trade and the importance of fighting protectionism.

The United States has imposed tariffs on steel and aluminium imports from Canada, Mexico and the European Union and is weighing up the possibility of slapping additional duties on automobile imports. Trump says his tariffs are meant to protect U.S. industry and workers from unfair international competition as part of his "America First" agenda.

With files from the CBC and the Canadian Press