Reuters Feb 28, 2012 – 3:01 PM ET
Pat McGrath/Postmedia News Files
A 2011 protest in Ottawa over the proposed Canada-EU free trade agreement.
By David Ljunggren
OTTAWA — Talks on a free trade agreement between Canada and the European Union may take months longer to complete than initially planned as Canada seeks the best possible deal, Ottawa said on Tuesday.
The agreement is particularly important for Canada, which is seeking to diversify exports away from the giant U.S. market.
The two sides still have to settle contentious issues such as whether to amend Canada’s Patent Act to give more protection to European drug firms, a move the Canadian generic pharmaceutical industry opposes.
The predicted date for a conclusion to the negotiations has changed several times. Canadian officials and EU diplomats said earlier this year that the talks should be completed by the end of summer 2012.
Canadian Trade Minister Ed Fast said on Tuesday his goal was to wrap up the talks by the end of the year, while conceding they could continue for even longer.
“We always said we were hoping, and it was our aim, to complete negotiations in 2012,” he told a news conference.
“One thing I don’t want to do is put an arbitrary time line on our negotiations,” he added. “We need to negotiate the very best agreement for Canada and if that takes a couple of extra months, so be it.” He declined to give details on how the talks were going.
In December 2010, Canada’s then trade minister said he hoped the deal would be completed by the end of 2011.
For Canada, the pact would be the biggest since it signed the landmark North American Free Trade Agreement with the United States and Mexico in 1994. Ottawa says a treaty with Europe would increase two-way trade by 20%.
Canada-EU bilateral trade in goods totaled $77-billion in 2010, while Canada-U.S. trade totals $556-billion.
Officials said last October they needed to settle disagreements on issues such as investment protection, intellectual property, access for agricultural goods, and opening up local and national procurement markets.
Fast said Canada’s negotiators “will defend Canadian interests and they will only sign off on items that are clearly in Canada’s best interest”.
He added that Canada’s Patent Act — a major sticking point — had not yet been discussed in the latest round of talks. Pharmaceutical industry representatives last week expressed frustration at what they said was slow progress on the file.
© Thomson Reuters 2012