Prime Minister Stephen Harper today said he would not allow Europe's ban on seal products to "contaminate" a potential multi-billion free-trade deal with the European Union.
"It is important that in any relationship, but particularly in a mature and complex commercial relationship like ours, that we not allow a dispute on one issue to contaminate our relations on a whole bunch of other things," he said during a press conference at the conclusion of a one-day summit between Canada and the EU.
The launching of the talks is a deal potentially worth $12 billion in boosted exports for Canada.
Mr. Harper discussed the deal with Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, who is giving up the presidency of the EU on Friday, and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.
It is the first time the EU has entered into such an agreement with a developed country. Canada is being viewed as the model for free trade deals between the EU and eventually the United States. But the sealing issue is a particular irritant as the European Parliament voted 550 to 49 earlier this week to ban seal products.
Newfoundland politicians are irate with the Conservative government, believing it will be abandoning the province if it does not demand the EU drop the ban before a trade deal is struck.
But Mr. Harper was not budging today, saying that in a relationship as important as the one with the EU it "become not about only one issue."
"If we were to make our trade relations with the European Union only the sealing issue, we will never have any trading relations because as we now know this is a disagreement of long standing, one of which I suspect we may never see eye to eye."
However, he said he and his government are vigorously defending the sealing industry both domestically and internationally.
Trade Minister Stockwell Day, who is also in Prague for the meetings, said the government will appeal the decision to the World Trade Organization.
President Barrosa defended the ban, arguing that while they understand "the sensitivity" of the issues for Canada it was in no way protectionist and that it "is fully compatible" with the rules of the WTO.
It is hoped that the free trade deal, which will seek agreements in areas including labour mobility, customs procedures, trades in services investment, food safety, sustainable development and goods, could be signed within a year.
The EU is Canada's second-largest trading partner after the United States.
"… Keep in mind that would be the start of a process. Our estimation is that if we had a free trade deal with the EU right now we would see a boost in our exports of about $12 billion," said Mr. Day. "That translates to thousands of jobs."
In 2008, two-way merchandise trade totalled $90.4 billion according to a PMO release. Canada has been trying since the Trudeau years to reach a trade deal with the Europeans.
Indeed, there has been much public debate around the issue. In Wednesday's International Herald Tribune, former Chretien Trade Minister Roy MacLaren, who also served as Canada's High Commissioner to London, wrote that the launch of the agreement is "good news … amidst dark mutterings about the rise of protectionism in global trade."
Mr. MacLaren was in Prague for the meetings.
He and his co-author, Bill Emmott, a former editor of The Economist, wrote that this has been a carefully "scoped" out deal in advance and should not take long to figure out.
One outstanding issue that has already been resolved is that the provinces will be involved.
"The conclusion of that question had meaning beyond the bounds of the E.U.-Canada agreement," say the authors. "It will rise again when Europe embarks upon negotiations with the federations of Australia and the United States."
In addition to the launching of the trade talks, Mr. Harper also signed an air transport agreement that would allow for more competition, and hopefully lead to more choices and lower costs, for travellers flying between Canada and Europe.