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Fast dismisses concerns over delays in finalizing European, China deals

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OTTAWA - Only technicalities stand in the way of Canada concluding major trade and investment agreements with Europe and China despite growing unease over long delays in ratification, federal Trade Minister Ed Fast insisted on Thursday.

The agreements — a comprehensive trade deal in principle with the European Union and a foreign investment deal with China — are lynchpins in the Harper government's free trade agenda aimed at spreading Canadian trade and investment around the world.

The former was signed to some fanfare and much controversy in November 2012, the latter last October. But both have languished in limbo since.

In testimony before the Commons trade committee, the minister insisted under questioning that both the China FIPA and the EU trade agreement remain priorities for the government and are not stalled.

Fast said his government has not concluded ratification of the deal with China because of ongoing litigation by the Hupacasath First Nation in B.C. to block the deal. The Federal Court ruled against the Hupacasath last August, but the band of about 300 has appealed.

As for the trade agreement with Europe, Fast said it was complicated translating the agreement into at least "1,000 pages" of legal text.

"What the minister suggested ... is highly misleading if not untrue," NDP critic Don Davies said in an interview after the session.

"It's clear the (EU) deal is not finalized. The parties are still resolving, discussing and negotiating issues."

Davies said FIPA has been stalled because the government had belatedly come to the realization it had allowed China to grandfather in existing discriminatory practices against Canadian investors, although the deal bans such measures in future.

"I believe they are now trying to assemble what these non-conforming measures are before we bind ourselves to 31 years," he said.

Trade lawyer Lawrence Herman said he doesn't know the exact reasons for the delay, but said he too has heard there is a problem with the FIPA. He added he also doesn't accept the explanation that it is because the issue faces litigation, saying if that were the case special interest groups could indefinitely tie up any trade or investment deal.

"Some concerns have been raised about some of the carve-outs and there has been comments FIPA may not be entirely balanced in the sense that Canadian investors would not have the same access to remedy as Chinese investors would have in Canada," he said.

"It's a long delay and it's indicative the government is rethinking some of the provisions."

Fast insisted at the committee that the government is committed to ratifying the agreement.

After being informed of the NDP comments, a spokesperson for Fast's office responded that the FIPA "contains all of the core substantive obligations that are standard" in other such agreements.

The spokesperson noted that Chinese investors would also be subject to restrictions under the Investment Canada Act that pre-date the deal.

On the European trade deal, Fast said all the substantive issues had been resolved last October and only translation into a legal text remained.

"This doesn't happen overnight and it's got to be done carefully," he said. "You don't do this on the back of a napkin, you don't do it in a corner of a bar."

Meanwhile, a source close to the European trade talks said the two sides had worked diligently over the past few months to iron out outstanding issues and that a final agreement could be ready in a matter of weeks.

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