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The promise of new European food markets has fizzled

Three years ago this week, Canadian food exporters were jumping for joy over a new trade deal with Europe, the Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA)

On Sept. 21, 2017, negotiators announced they had succeeded in opening the huge, potentially lucrative European market – consisting of 500 million people – to a variety of Canadian agriculture and food products.

In return, they had to open up Canada for some European dairy products, sending Canada’s dairy industry reeling.

Farmers and processors said letting our border guard drop against dairy imports was the first step in dismantling a supply management system that had worked for decades. Europe, it said, would use Canada as a cheap dumping ground for its own oversupply, and producers here would go out of business.

That hasn’t happened. But in case it does, Ottawa has already given millions of dollars to Canadian dairy farmers to ease them into a more market-driven system.

Now, though, agri-food exporters who are part of the Canadian Agri-Food Trade Alliance, say they are “gravely concerned” that the EU is not respecting the spirit of the commitments it made when negotiations concluded.

They say they were promised “transformational access” to the EU. However, they maintain, that never happened and it’s hurting their bottom line.

“The need to resolve these issues couldn’t be more urgent, especially as the federal government remains focused on combating the spread of COVID-19 while protecting the economy,” says the group. “As a trading nation, our road to recovery cannot be successfully navigated unless we unblock our major trade routes.”

Here’s what’s going on.

The group says Europe’s agreement to remove tariff and non-tariff barriers was supposed to increase Canada’s exports by nearly $1.5 billion annually.

The deal also included commitments to work together to advance a number of non-tariff issues related to technical barriers to trade, sanitary and phytosanitary measures, regulatory cooperation, origin procedures, biotechnology, trade distorting subsidies among others.

Those non-tariff barriers can as bad at least as tariffs. Regulators can arbitrarily decrease maximum allowable limits of measurables such as pesticides, and send shipments back. Eventually, such a deed might get sorted out legally or diplomatically. But the bottom line is that farmers’ access gets limited.

And that’s what the exporters say is happening to them. The EU Commission and EU member states continue maintaining a wide range of barriers, imposing new barriers or failing to reduce those that were to be lowered or eliminated altogether through CETA, they say.

They believe that according to the CETA deal, our agri-food exports to the EU of beef, pork, canola and grain should be much higher.

Worse is the possibility that “significant danger” looms as a result of these trade procedures. If left unchallenged, it will be replicated on other commodities and in other jurisdictions. And new EU food and agriculture policies could make matters even worse.

I opposed these changes back in 2017. But assurances from Ottawa of market access in Europe were attractive, overall, and it seemed maybe it would somehow balance out.

It hasn’t. The exporters want Ottawa to immediately deploy what they call the Team Canada approach, mobilizing concerted efforts to defend Canadian trade interests and resolve the lack of respect the EU is showing to abide by the spirit of the CETA.

The problem is that with a pandemic upon us, Europe is not very concerned about what Canada wants. If it thinks it’s better to drag its feet and feed its people European-grown food, that’s what it will do.

Perhaps, as the exporters say, the time has come for Canada to be forceful in seeking a resolution to issues that continue to undermine Canada’s access to the EU.

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