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After a tortuous two decades, CETA is a trade deal worth celebrating

Victory has a hundred parents, but defeat is an orphan, said Mussolini's son-in-law on one of the few occasions that he was right about anything. The Canada-European Union: Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) finally signed in Brussels a few weeks ago, is no exception to Galeazzo Ciano's quip.

Since I launched the idea of a transatlantic agreement on its uncertain course more than two decades ago, there has emerged a multitude of parents and a corporal's guard of opponents, encouraged by the recent souring of popular enthusiasm for free trade and, more broadly, for globalization. Twenty-two years ago, prime minister Jean Chrétien, in a speech to the French Senate, included a few sentences that I had drafted, proposing a NAFTA-EU trade and investment agreement. The basic idea had, in fact, been put forward in 1948-49 by Lester Pearson, then-secretary of state for external affairs, to render the proposed NATO an economic as well as a military alliance.

Given the impatience of the United States to conclude the military alliance, the economic idea went nowhere. Fast-forward to 1994. I had put both the Uruguay Round of the GATT (which, among other things created the World Trade Organization) and the North American free-trade agreement through the House of Commons. By then, free-trade enthusiasts in Europe and North America were already beginning to talk about yet another grand negotiating round (eventually called the Doha Round) in an ill-considered attempt to keep the momentum behind rules-based multilateral trade liberalization. Although as minister for international trade I remained an advocate of multilateral trade negotiations over bilateral or regional, I was convinced that the initiative was ill-timed. In any case, Canada had already abandoned its long-standing preference for multilateral agreements with the conclusion of the Conservative Brian Mulroney's bilateral agreement with the United States.

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In Mr. Chrétien's government I fostered support for a transatlantic agreement, but the United States rejected the idea on the grounds that Congress would never give Bill Clinton the necessary "fast track" negotiating authority following its close-run efforts to impeach him. I nevertheless pressed the idea in Europe from my post as high commissioner in London, in time successfully by concluding an agreement with Switzerland and Norway (the remaining members of the European Free Trade Association) but receiving many rejections from the inward-looking EU Trade Commissioners, Lord Brittan and Pascal Lamy.

Upon my return to Canada in 2000, I became the chair of the Canada-Europe Round Table for Business (CERT), a joint Canada-Europe advocate of a Canada-European Union agreement. Jean Charest, then premier of Quebec, soon thereafter added his special skills and energy, which made a major contribution to our eventual success.In the spring of 2008, my co-chairman of CERT, Bill Emmott, the former editor of The Economist magazine, helped Mr. Charest and I to persuade the EU trade commissioner, Peter Mandelson, to engage with Canada in a "scoping exercise" of the benefits to both investment and trade in a bilateral agreement. Not for us was Mr. Mandelson the popularly known "Prince of Darkness." Backed by Dorian Prince, the EU ambassador to Canada, it was he who opened the way to the actual negotiations, which were launched in Prague in May, 2009. Years of non-stop negotiation then ensued in Brussels and Ottawa.

When the new government of Justin Trudeau came into office in 2015, bipartisan support was reaffirmed, but a major snag appeared on the transatlantic horizon. I had always feared that somehow, before our own negotiations were finally completed, the United States and the EU might begin parallel negotiations. They did, and new difficulties soon emerged for Canada, especially over the anxiety in the European public that the EU's negotiation with the United States engendered. The European Commission was also wary of according to the United States all of what they had already provisionally agreed with Canada. This issue was made all the more potent once anti-trade NGOs achieved some success in labelling CETA as a stalking horse for a much larger U.S.-EU agreement. Worse, beyond the question of what in trade jargon is known as investor-state dispute settlement, there had been building on both sides of the Atlantic popular disillusionment with globalization, which seemed to some to be bringing with it more constraints than opportunities.

The agreement has yet to run the gauntlet of a complex and, in some respects, hazardous final approval process, but its early provisional implementation will carry the promise that there is, as in other trade agreements, no relish to reverse provisional application. The many parents of CETA on both sides of the Atlantic can now be reasonably certain that, with provisional application, CETA will be in effect a done deal and a template for other progressive bilateral or regional agreements. No orphan that.

The Hon. Roy MacLaren is chairman of the Canada-Europe Round Table for Business and a former minister for International Trade

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