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‘Lighthouse for future trade deals’: Canada-EU trade deal ratified in Strasbourg

The European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday approved the Canada-EU trade agreement after a noisy and sometimes emotional debate.

Roughly 58 per cent of the members of the European Parliament (MEPs) voted to ratify the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), setting the stage for provisional application of nearly 90 per cent of the agreement later this spring. 

“This is a deal for the people,” International Trade Minister François-Philippe Champagne said after the vote, emphasizing how the agreement will offer consumers more choice and lower costs.

“Trade is a good thing for the world,” he said.

“By adopting CETA, we chose openness, and growth and high standards over protectionism and stagnation,” said Artis Pabriks from the European People’s Party, calling Canada an “ally we can rely on.”

“Together we can build bridges, instead of a wall, for the prosperity of our citizens. CETA will be a lighthouse for future trade deals all over the world.”

The final vote saw most of the MEPs representing Europe’s centrist parties voting in favour, with opposition from members representing left-leaning socialist and Green as well as right-wing, nationalist parties. 

Of the 695 MEPs present in the 751-seat legislature, 408 voted in favour, 254 against and 33 abstained.

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Members of the European Parliament voted 408-254 Wednesday to approve the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with Canada. (Vincent Kessler/Reuters)

A close vote would have made it more difficult to rally enthusiasm across Europe to implement what the deal has to offer.

‘New era’ in relations

Observers noted that this margin is smaller than the 75 per cent approval vote in 2011 for the EU’s trade agreement with South Korea.

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French politician Yannick Jadot, left, the Green Party candidate for the 2017 French presidential election, was among the members of the European Parliament who voted against CETA. (Vincent Kessler/Reuters)

But CETA is a larger and more ambitious deal in many respects.

Not only does it drop and phase out tariffs and grant new market access for a wide range of products including agricultural commodities, but it opens up Canadian government contracts to foreign companies and moves to harmonize certification as well as labour and environmental standards between the two trading partners.

Opponents to the deal mobilized street protests across Europe and placed intense pressure on European politicians to reject the deal, arguing that it was a threat to the sovereignty of European countries and could allow Canadian subsidiaries of large American corporations to sue the governments of member states if they passed regulations that weren’t favourable to their interests.

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Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s National Front party and also a member of the European Parliament, was among the right-wing nationalist votes opposing CETA. (Vincent Kessler/Reuters)

EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom, who worked closely with Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s former trade minister and now minister of foreign affairs, to see CETA through to its signing ceremony last October, said ratification heralded the start of a new era in Canada-EU relations.

MEPs also voted Wednesday to approve an EU-Canada Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) covering non-trade issues such as foreign and security policy, counter-terrorism, fighting organised crime, sustainable development, research and culture. That vote passed by a larger margin, 506-142, with 43 abstentions.

Prior to the vote, European advocates spoke of the desire to approve the deal out of empathy and solidarity with Canada in the face of aggressive trade threats and rising protectionism and nationalist sentiments in the United States.

Champagne was watching the vote along with a Canadian delegation in the European Parliament’s gallery that included former Quebec premier Jean Charest, a champion of the deal going back to the start of negotiations in 2009. Champagne called CETA “the right deal at the right time.”

Provisional application later this spring

The House of Commons passed C-30, Canada’s implementation legislation for the European Union trade deal, at third reading on Tuesday afternoon. Once it clears the Senate, a range of federal laws and regulations will change to bring Canada into compliance with the new trading arrangements. 

Similar changes now need to be made at the provincial and territorial level as well.

Once Canada has finished these processes, over 90 per cent of the agreement may come into force provisionally on the first day of the second month following the date both sides notify each other that they have completed all their necessary legal and regulatory changes to comply.

A press release from the EU suggested this could be the case as of April 1 at the earliest.

Full implementation of the agreement requires votes in national and regional parliaments across EU’s member states.

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Demonstrators continued to protest the Canada-EU trade agreement in Strasbourg on Wednesday. Civil society groups and trade unions across Europe have pressured politicians to amend or reject the deal. (Vincent Kessler/Reuters)

Canada and the EU continue to work on the agreement’s investor court provisions, a controversial part of the deal that gives corporations the right to sue when government decisions harm their business interests.

This part of the agreement was already rewritten once last year to overcome opposition to the deal, and further amendments are possible before ratification votes proceed across member state legislatures.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will speak to the European Parliament in Strasbourg Thursday to try to keep the momentum of Wednesday’s vote going and rally more enthusiasm for the deal’s advantages.