Trans-Pacific trade talks stagger down to the wire
Pact likely will become key election issue if hammered out before Oct. 19 federal vote
OTTAWA— Negotiations to create a sweeping trade pact involving Canada, the United States, Japan and nine other Pacific Rim nations went down to the wire Sunday as officials met late into the evening in a last-ditch attempt to reach consensus on the outlines of a deal.
It was a roller-coaster of hopes and disappointments at the closed-door talks in Atlanta, where government officials from the would-be partners met for the fifth consecutive day of intense horse-trading.
Stephen Harper had initially planned a Sunday evening appearance in Ottawa to welcome the deal, which his government sees as a potential source of long-term economic growth.
But the Conservative leader’s press conference was put off as word came from Atlanta that the negotiations, which in the afternoon were apparently headed for a successful conclusion, became bogged down again. A technical briefing for media on the expected agreement-in-principle on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was also postponed. There was speculation late Sunday that the Atlanta meeting would go over into Monday.
The negotiations, which have been underway for years, took on added now-or-never drama in Atlanta owing to pressure to hammer out a deal before the Oct. 19 federal election here in Canada, which participants realized could lead to a change of government. The looming presidential election cycle in the United States also put pressure on negotiators to overcome their differences on a handful of lingering issues.
A TPP deal, which would reverberate through Canada for years, is likely if completed to feature prominently in the final two weeks of the election campaign. NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair has vowed to protect dairy farmers and autoworkers — two groups that could be affected by the TPP — and has said that if elected to power he would not feel compelled to honour a trade agreement initialled by Harper in the midst of an election campaign. “The NDP, when we form government on Oct. 19, will not be bound by this secret agreement that Mr. Harper has been negotiating,” the NDP leader said in Brantford, Ont.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has also promised to protect dairy farmers and those in the auto sector but said approval of a TPP deal would depend on what’s actually negotiated.
Campaigning in Brampton, Trudeau said the Liberals favour freetrade deals but would take a long look at any agreement signed by the Conservatives before deciding whether to uphold it.
“We will of course evaluate and look at what’s in the deal,” he said. “The problem is that (Harper) has been secretive and non-transparent in this and we need to make sure that we’re actually creating a trade deal that is good for Canadians.”
Harper has said a TPP agreement would have to be approved in Parliament before coming into force.
Despite hopes of successful outcome in Atlanta Sunday, a few lingering issues — including Canadian dairy — repeatedly delayed a deal announcement.
As a result, a planned news conference to announce the deal was rescheduled from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., then 8 p.m. and then left unscheduled entirely for the evening — a fitting finale to a ministerial meeting marked by all-night negotiations that was supposed to last two days, then three, then four and was by Sunday in its fifth day.
Harper had planned for a quiet day off the election trail but he ended up consumed by trade talks, being briefed in Ottawa by the negotiating team in Atlanta.
The dynamics delaying the deal were explained by one of the trade ministers involved the 12-country talks. He said a struggle over nextgeneration pharmaceuticals has had a cascading effect on attempts to resolve other issues.
“Look, it’s not done yet,” said Australia’s Andrew Robb.
He explained that the U.S. and Australia had worked all night to resolve their differences on cutting-edge, cell-based medicines and made a breakthrough around 3 a.m.
He said they’d succeeded at establishing a model that bridges the gap between two entrenched positions: the more business-friendly, eightyear patent-style protections the U.S. wants for biologics, and the more patient-and-taxpayer-friendly fiveyear model preferred by Australia and others.
But that caused an uneven ripple effect. Some other countries weren’t pleased with the compromise, and that discussion became more multisided with two or three holdouts remaining, he said.
Canada was not too involved in that skirmish. But the delay, according to Robb, wound up pushing other issues to the back burner until Sunday morning and negotiators were still trying to manage compromises all day.
Insiders say access to Canadian grocery shelves is chief among the outstanding issues. Negotiators have been haggling about how much foreign butter, condensed milk and other dairy products should be allowed into Canada.
That last-minute suspense cast a shadow of uncertainty over what appeared to be a done deal a few hours earlier.
Protesters believe the TPP should not expand to drug monopolies denying life-saving and less expensive alternative drugs.