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Canada needs to be a louder cheerleader for international trade deals

Finn Poschmann is chief executive officer at the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council. He addressed the House of Commons standing committee on international trade on Sept. 29.

International trade and investor protection deals are not always big deals, or political footballs. Canada's broad free-trade agreement with Chile, our first in Central America and now two decades old, was never much of a dot on anyone's radar.

Likewise, the world is criss-crossed by a web of thousands of bilateral investment treaties; Canada is signatory to dozens of them. Your investments in Timbuktu will soon be covered by one of the agreements, signed by Ottawa in 2014.

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Two current deals awaiting ratification, each important to Canada, have become very big political footballs. Canada should be enthusiastically cheering on those deals – the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with the European Union, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership – even if we are currently on the sidelines.

CETA is important to us because it improves market access for our goods and services in Europe. It will also improve product choice and prices here, bring more competition to public procurement and put a tiny dent in the dairy supply-management system. Not a bad start.

Most of CETA can now be provisionally applied. But it will not be legally binding and fully in force until EU member states have individually ratified it. That process, we all know, has been horrendously complicated by Britain's EU exit, and in several countries, the deal is under attack by protection-minded populists, with opponents on the left and right alleging that Canada will undermine their labour and environmental standards. A Canadian charm offensive is in order.

It is hard to say whether prospects are worse for TPP, which, among other things, would nicely boost our markets for sea products and agricultural goods, and offer a bit of a boost to the domestic ports and transport sectors.

TPP started as an underinflated ball in Canada, and we were nudged late into the game by diplomats on the other side of the Pacific who felt that our participation would improve chances for success in the United States. The Australians and New Zealanders also really wanted better dairy-market access, which would be a relief for Canadian food processors and restaurateurs. Over the course of 20 years, the deal would meaningfully increase our supply of milk for industrial processing, with only indirect impact on the retail market. Another decent start.

In the United States, President Barack Obama's administration has energetically backed the TPP, securing "Trade Promotion Authority" from a more-or-less friendly Congress (on this issue), a fast-track procedure that enables a simple up or down vote in the chambers, without modifications to the deal and with the presumption that it will pass.

Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state, described the TPP as the gold standard of trade deals. While not hyperbole of Trumpian dimensions, it was a hyperbolic statement nonetheless. No trade deal is perfect; they necessarily represent the muddied middle ground of a constellation of economic and political interests.

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TPP is a good example of that. It opens markets, but for Canadians selling into Asian seafood and agricultural markets, the opening is gradual. The deal entrenches some old economic interests in several countries, and broadens the application of U.S. intellectual property rules. This is a bigger deal for others than it is for Canada, because on patent rules, for example, we were pretty near to the U.S. system already.

Yet imperfect does not mean bad, and all serious analyses show Canada to be better off with the TPP in existence – assuming we are part of it – than without.

And the TPP is in its own end zone in the U.S. political field, which matters a lot. Without the Americans, the deal loses much of its raison d'être, and the drive for ratification elsewhere will flag, as it already may have, mysteriously, in Vietnam. (The Vietnam case is an odd one, as a glance at the TPP's proposed terms indicates its citizens have perhaps the most to gain of anyone. I'll leave inspection of Hanoi's political entrails to others.)

Perhaps most important, in the run-up to the primaries late last year, Ms. Clinton the presidential candidate turned tail on the TPP, leaving no current presidential contender, other than Libertarian Gary Johnson, on its side.

So where does this leave the TPP? In the United States, the Republican Party is certain to retain control of the House of Representatives, and at least likely to retain control of the Senate. At some times, this would be favourable for international trade deals. The populist winds say this is not necessarily one of them. And whoever wins the presidency, it is clear that the office-holder in late January, 2017, will not be proposing TPP ratification by Congress.

That leaves the postelection interregnum. The current Congress supported fast-tracking TPP, and the current U.S. President continues to champion it. In that sense, the moral groundwork for Mr. Obama's pursuing ratification has already been laid – even if it would be in the lamest month of his lame-duck term.

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Congressional insiders, pro-trade deal or otherwise, say Mr. Obama is beyond unlikely to push for TPP ratification if he does not see decent possibility of success. Certainly, it would provoke understandable political outrage. But if he does, it would be a really good time for Canada to cheer him on.

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