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Although major work remains, here’s why the PM can highlight this trade deal between Canada and Europe

John Geddes
August 5, 2014

If reaction to the announcement that negotiators have finally hammered out the text of a Canada-European Union trade pact sounded a touch cautious, that was to be expected. After all, in the more than five years since talks on the so-called Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) were launched, many confidently predicted breakthroughs had fizzled.

Even after Prime Minister Stephen Harper jetted off to Brussels last fall for the splashy signing of a CETA “agreement in principle” with European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, delays and setbacks at the bargaining table continued. Still, the Aug. 5 announcement that officials had signed off on a detailed text—even though it wasn’t yet ready to be released publicly—appeared to be the real deal at last.

Major work remains on the path to ratifying CETA, mainly in Europe, so it likely won’t be implemented, officials estimate, before mid-2016.

Yet Harper’s strategists have reason to be enthusiastic. Wrapping up negotiations allows them to put trade with Europe at the centre of a planned autumn push to buff up Harper’s image as an economic manager, as partisan jockeying on the key issue of job creation heats up in advance of the federal election slated for fall 2015. Along with Trade Minister Ed Fast, Harper will head a trade mission to the U.K. early next month, before hosting a trade summit in Canada in late September with European leaders.

“The CETA supports the narrative that he and the Conservatives are focused on creating jobs and economic opportunities for Canadian businesses, while the opposition leaders are risky, albeit for different reasons,” said pollster David Coletto, chief executive of the Ottawa firm Abacus Data.

Coletto sees the Tories painting Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau as not serious enough to be trusted with cutting international trade deals, and NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair as ideologically unwilling to pursue them. In fact, neither appears eager to battle Harper on trade, even though the issue once defined the left-right split in Canadian politics.

Last fall, Trudeau declared himself “broadly supportive of CETA.” The NDP greeted this week’s announcement by declaring they won’t decide whether to support the deal or not until the full text is released, analyzed and debated by “business, labour, local and provincial governments, Aboriginal peoples and others.” Opposing CETA would be risky. An Abacus poll last spring found that 58 per cent of Canadians expected it to be good for the economy, compared to just 15 per cent who anticipated ill effects. Breaking down those findings along partisan lines, 78 per cent of Conservative supporters were, unsurprisingly, upbeat about the deal, but so were 56 per cent of Liberal backers and 53 per cent of NDP voters.

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