Trudeau arrives in Brussels to sign European Union trade deal

After the bumpy ride Canada’s free trade agreement with Europe had on the road to today’s signing ceremony in Brussels, the mechanical difficulties Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Airbus had after takeoff Saturday evening almost seemed par for the course.

The plane took off, then returned to Ottawa after only 45 minutes, experiencing a malfunction of its wing flaps. After just under an hour on the ground sorting out the mechanical problem, it finally took off again, several hours delayed.

Staff scrambled to rework the already-crammed schedule of events for the one-day, whirlwind trip.

Negotiations with the EU have been a seven-year test of patience, as well as political strategy.

When Trudeau picks up his pen with European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker around 1:45 p.m. in Brussels (8:45 a.m. ET), it won’t signal the finish line. Ratification is not guaranteed.

But at least he got this far.

International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland and her envoy, former cabinet minister Pierre Pettigrew, appeared relaxed and smiling as the trip began — a sharp contrast to the mood when Freeland and her chief negotiator, Steve Verheul, took the difficult decision of stepping away from 11th-hour talks as the fate of the agreement moved to the brink a week ago in Belgium.

Sunday’s meetings are about the next steps, now that Belgium has resolved its internal debates and joined the other 27 EU countries in signing on.

Trudeau climate conference

European Council President Donald Tusk, left, and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, will join Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to sign CETA on Sunday. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion and Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard are among those meeting with EU leaders and officials in a scaled-down version of the Canada-Europe summit that was originally scheduled for last Thursday and Friday.

The Canadian delegation also will meet with Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament, to discuss timelines for the agreement’s ratification vote. That parliament’s trade committee is expected to begin its review of the deal before the end of the year.

Negotiations towards the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) began under Stephen Harper’s former Conservative government in 2009.

The text was finalized two years ago, but the EU hit pause on signing and ratification as opposition to parts of the deal built across Europe, particularly in the face of fresh concerns about similar trade negotiations between the EU and the United States.

International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland agreed last winter to reopen its controversial investor-state dispute resolution clauses, replacing them with a new European investor court system it hoped to put in place not just for Canadian investors, but in any subsequent trading relationships.

Civil society groups, however, believe this part of the deal not only wasn`t needed between like-minded democratic partners, but was a threat to the sovereign ability of countries to regulate in areas such as environmental or labour policies without fear of being sued by foreign corporations.

Pressure built on left and centre-left parties across Europe to reject the deal.

Belgium almost vetoed

In a political compromise, the EU decided last summer that a small part of the agreement, including the investor court system, would not apply until every one of the 28 member countries in the EU had a chance to vote on its full ratification.

Without reopening the deal, Canada worked with the EU over the last two months to draft a “joint interpretative instrument”: a formal document annexed onto the main agreement intended to clarify CETA’s more controversial measures.

Skepticism about the deal peaked over the last two weeks, when politicians in Belgium’s southern Wallonia region voted no and effectively vetoed CETA, until last-minute lobbying resulted in a declaration in Belgium Thursday and re-votes on Friday to set the signing back in motion.

Most of CETA could be provisionally applied sometime next year, after it passes a ratification vote in the European Parliament. Canada’s parliament and provincial legislatures also need to pass implementation legislation.

Once that happens, tariffs are set to drop on 98 per cent of the goods traded between Canada and the EU. For the first time, Canadian businesses will be able to bid on European government procurement.

Federal compensation programs for several Canadian industries now facing new threats from European imports are expected to be announced soon.

Follow @janycemcgregor on Twitter for updates from Brussels this weekend.

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