Opposition warns there's not enough time to vet U.K. trade deal

·5 min read

As signs emerge that a transitional trade deal between Canada and the U.K. is imminent, Opposition MPs on the Commons trade committee warned Friday they may not be able to pass implementation legislation in time because the Liberal government let the talks drag on too long.

Doug Forsyth, Canada's chief negotiator for the Canada-United Kingdom Transitional Trade Agreement, stopped short of confirming a Bloomberg News report earlier this week that said U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson's beleaguered government was about to get a significant boost "within days" by securing its post-Brexit preferential trade access to the Canadian market.

"I am quite optimistic," Forsyth told MPs. "I'm quite confident that we will reach a final conclusion very shortly."

When asked a few minutes later about the reports of a deal coming as early as this weekend, Forsyth said "the leaks did not come from the Canadian side, certainly that I'm aware of."

But even if a deal's pending, Opposition MPs warned they don't have time left on parliamentary calendar to approve its implementation before the House's extended holiday break.

When legislation to enact the revised North American Free Trade Agreement was hurried through Parliament last winter, the government agreed to a NDP proposal laying out how future deals would have more parliamentary oversight.

Rushing through another trade bill — similar to the manner in which pandemic assistance was pushed through — could violate that understanding in this increasingly tense minority Parliament.

This week, Youmy Han, a spokesperson for International Trade Minister Mary Ng, confirmed to CBC News that once the agreement is approved by cabinet, legislation to change the relevant laws and regulations (such as specific customs tariffs) will have to pass "in accordance with established practice and requirements."

"We hope all members will support an agreement that helps preserve Canada's trade interests with our U.K. partners and bring stability, predictability and continuity for Canadian businesses and workers," she said.

'Ain't gonna happen'

When Forsyth told the committee Friday that he was negotiating based on a Dec. 31 deadline, MPs got agitated.

"You've missed your deadline," Conservative MP Randy Hoback said. "I cannot put this through the House of Commons in the time frame to have continuity … unless I ram it through like I did with the [NAFTA bill.]"

Hoback said the government was effectively saying that "Parliament doesn't matter," because MPs were being asked to approve something they haven't seen.

"That ain't gonna happen," Hoback warned.

"As parliamentarians … we're to be very quick studies if we're to conclude something before Dec. 31," said NDP trade critic Daniel Blaikie. "I share Mr. Hoback's skepticism about the possibility of that."

Opposition Leader Erin O'Toole has ramped up his criticism of the government recently for failing to quickly secure a deal with one of its oldest and most important trading partners.

During a fireside chat at a virtual APEC event Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that concluding the talks was a priority, "to make sure there is a seamless transition for Canadian investors, for British investors," and added that he was optimistic that would happen.

'Very very very nearly there'

Also Thursday, the British High Commissioner to Canada, Susan le Jeune d'Allegeershecque, told CBC News Network's Power & Politics she also was optimistic the two countries were in the final stages of securing an agreement, but couldn't say much else.

"Watch this space," she said. "We are very, very, very nearly there... I think it will happen very quickly."

It needs to, if the two countries hope to avoid significant disruptions for their industries.

After the United Kingdom left the European Union last winter, both sides agreed that until the end of 2020, Canada would continue to trade with the British under the terms of the Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA).

Because the U.K. did not have jurisdiction over its own trade until Brexit was complete, the two sides agreed to negotiate a transitional agreement that would replicate as much of the CETA as possible for the short term.

The transitional deal will not have a fixed term or sunset clause, but both sides have committed to a more conventional bilateral trade negotiation next year to reach a permanent, comprehensive deal.

Forsyth told MPs that negotiators were constrained in what they could accomplish in the transitional deal, but were looking forward to concluding bilateral talks as soon as possible in areas where they could "go farther."

"I don't think we want to drag this out beyond a couple of years," he told the committee.

Farm issues hard to resolve

Forsyth listed the measures that had to be renegotiated for a U.K.-only deal, including sanitary regulations, procurement rules, investment regulations, market access levels for sensitive goods and the rules of origin that define which goods qualify as domestically produced and therefore eligible for preferential tariffs.

In committee testimony earlier this month, Steve Verheul, the assistant deputy minister for trade negotiations, told MPs that negotiators had some "challenges" resolving issues related to the temporary entry of businesspeople for business purposes — something that's been an issue between the U.K. and other trading partners too, as it forges its own immigration policy post-Brexit.

Verheul said the "small handful" of issues negotiators were stuck on in the late stages also included converting CETA's market access commitments for 28 countries into reasonable quantities for the U.K. alone. For example, CETA's quota for sensitive farm goods will remain intact for the remaining 27 states to use, so the U.K. and Canada must negotiate their own tariff-free quantities in each direction.

Forsyth told MPs he did not have a negotiating mandate to offer the U.K. an additional slice of Canada's cheese market, for example, even though the U.K. wanted it.

In the other direction, Canadian grain and livestock farmers are perennially aggressive in negotiating new markets. The U.K., now out from under the EU's protection, is a target.

Boris Johnson's Conservative government, which relies on support from rural constituencies, may have resisted more tariff-free access for things like Canadian beef and pork.

The Commons trade committee reconvenes Monday to hear from business groups engaged in Canada–U.K. trade.