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EDITORIAL (NOVEMBER 2016): Freeland got it done, with flair

November 18th, 2016 · No Comments

Getting the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) ratified is a big win for Canada, and an equally big win for Chrystia Freeland, not just our Member of Parliament but also our nation’s Minister of International Trade.

We needed this deal with the European Union (EU), if for no other reason than to show the increasingly trade-averse Americans that we have other economic dance partners. We now have greater access to the 28-member EU, whose consumer market consists of over 500 million citizens. Until now, Canadian goods have been subject to significant tariffs, and some estimates suggest that CETA will result in an annual increase of $1.4 billion in goods exported to Europe by 2021. The pact also allows for more streamlined trade in services such as telecommunications, transport, and energy.

“CETA is more than a bright light in a world seemingly hell-bent on protectionism and isolation (Mr. Trump’s rhetoric), building walls (more Trump), and breaking ties (see Brexit).”

It hasn’t been easy getting this deal across the finish line, and it was Freeland who was primarily responsible for getting derailed negotiations back on track last month, after progress was stopped by the Belgian region of  (population: 1.3 million), which could veto that nation’s endorsement. Freeland’s tireless efforts to get the Walloons on board ended when she shocked many by walking out of talks with their prime minister in frustration.

Speaking to reporters afterward, our visibly choked-up trade minister delivered a blunt message: if the Europeans can’t negotiate with Canada, a nation whose values the EU shares, then they are no longer able to negotiate with anybody. It may have been a bit of drama on Freeland’s part, but it forced Belgium and the EU to take a good long look in the mirror. That she managed to express sadness and anger without belittling or bullying the Walloons also demonstrated no small amount of tact and respect.

CETA is more than a bright light in a world seemingly hell-bent on protectionism and isolation (Mr. Trump’s rhetoric), building walls (more Trump), and breaking ties (see Brexit). It’s also a building block for other trade deals, and a good model for working through differences of opinion.

It’s been a long time coming. It was begun under the previous government with the approval of the then leader of the third party, Justin Trudeau, who stood in the House of Commons to congratulate the prime minister of the day, Stephen Harper, for initiating the trade deal.

So it is with some irony that the Conservatives have attacked Freeland for her actions: Gerry Ritz, her critic in the house, suggested she needed “adult supervision” and accused her of having a “meltdown”. Rona Ambrose, meanwhile, described the minister’s conduct “as strange and unfitting”. While Ritz’s ad hominum remarks rang of sexism and paternalism, Ambrose clearly could not see the actions as strategic posturing, or chose to ignore that as a possibility.

The EU saw Freeland’s actions differently.

The European envoy to the talks, Marie-Anne Coninsx, praised the minister’s actions as critical to helping Wallonia to overcome its objections. Coninsx pointed out that Freeland met with Martin Schulz, the president of the European parliament the day after she walked out of the talks. Freeland had also previously attended the convention of the Social Democratic Party in Germany which, it turns out, shared the Wallonian prime minister’s concerns about CETA’s investor protection provisions. Having invested the time with the Germans on the question, Freeland was familiar with the issues when it came time to deal with the Walloons.

Those who consider her conduct unbecoming in a Canadian politician should remember that 29 years ago Simon Reisman, lead negotiator of NAFTA, declared an impasse and walked away from the talks to establish a free trade deal with the United States and Mexico. Eleven days later a deal was signed.

Minister Freeland did her homework, stood her ground, and, despite knowing that continued talking was not getting anywhere, did not burn her bridges. Indeed, like Reisman, she ended up building one.

 

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