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Media Bites: Will EU Free Trade Put Harper in the History Books?

10/21/2013 12:30 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Writing about Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Peter C. Newman once quipped that "If he ended up as only a footnote to history, that footnote would begin: 'He was the man who brought home the Constitution...'"

Clever stuff, but then again, you could make a similar bon mot about basically any prime minister of note. If Brian Mulroney's obituary was a single sentence, that sentence would have to include the letters "F" "T" and "A." Jean Chretien's commemorative dinner plate would need to say something about "taming the debt." And now Prime Minister Harper finally has his very own tombstone-ready one-liner, too: "he got us free trade with the Europeans."

That seems to be the consensus bouncing around the Canadian punditocracy at the moment, at least.

"There's a lot to like in the massive trade deal reached late last week by Canada and the European Union," concludes the Toronto Star editorial board -- hardly a hive of Harper apologists. Giving this country "preferential access to the world's biggest economy" they cheer, is a total "coup" for the PM, particularly since the EU contains "many of the world's most advanced and socially progressive countries" (this is the Toronto Star, after all).

The National Post's Andrew Coyne, another noted Tory-skeptic, is similarly feeling his icy heart warm.

"This is the first time the Harper government has put itself on the line in a principled way," he says, no doubt cartoonishly rubbing his eyes in disbelief, "the first time it has invested significant political capital in a policy, the first time it has acted as if it believed in something other than the meticulous assembly of winning coalitions."

Our "biggest trade deal since the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement," praises L. Ian MacDonald in the Ottawa Citizen. In fact -- maybe "an even bigger deal than the Canada-U.S. FTA in the sense of how sweeping it is" (my italics, Ian's excitement). Right you are, Mac, agrees David Akin in the Toronto Sun, this thing could "could be more important than the 1989 pact if only because the EU, with 500-million customers, is such a bigger a market with much more potential for wealth creation on both sides of the Atlantic."

Yup, truly a "historic win for the federal Conservative party and for Prime Minister Stephen Harper personally," agrees omnipresent Postmedia columnist Michael Den Tandt. A "legacy that will survive long after his departure" piles on the Post's Kelly McParland.

Take my word, chirps fellow Postie Jon Ivitson, this treaty "may well justify the hyperbole." Which is good, because lord knows there's been a lot of it.

So yeah, everyone agrees this trade deal rules. An estimated 80,000 new jobs, an annual $12 billion boost to GDP, cheaper vino from Italy, yadda yadda. But perhaps there's another story here, too.

For all their hyping of the big deal-ness of this big deal, most pundits can't help but winsomely reflect on how free trade with the Euros, something our prime minister unilaterally decreed from Brussels on a sleepy Friday afternoon, was such an extraordinary non-event compared to the Sisyphean ordeal old man Mulroney had to go through to get free trade with the States. As Mike Den Tandt helpfully reminds, in 1988 Canada fought an entire federal election over the issue, in which "then-Liberal leader John Turner made a jihad of his opposition" to Mulroney's proposed treaty, and madly "crisscrossed the country like Chicken Little" warning of economic ruin and the sellout of Canadian sovereignty that would accompany its ratification.

To understand why there's no comparable outrage today -- why even the NDP, once Canada's most virulently anti-trade party, says they're basically in favour of the Euro deal -- one need only consider a particular line of praise that's made its way into nearly every article celebrating Harper's treaty: it promises to "lessen our dependence on the United States." As Jon Ivision put it, that's "a policy goal that has eluded successive governments since the 1970s."

Pro-traders in Mulroney's time constantly argued that Canadian opposition to U.S. free trade had little to do with economics -- all economists agreed it was a no-brainer -- and everything to do with this country's paranoid streak of anti-Americanism. And now, 25 years later, they may finally have decisive proof.

If anything, in fact, one could argue Canada's crippling American colonialism complex, in which our ability to maintain the world's most profitable trade relationship with the richest country on the planet is considered a deep moral failing, goes a long way in explaining the current climate of exaggerated giddiness for an EU treaty that might help correct this "problem." An EU treaty, it's worth noting, that no one's actually read yet.

By the way, that $12 billion-a-year figure I mentioned earlier? The amount of fresh cash that's set to be pumped into Canada's GDP as a result of all this expanded trade with the Danes and Hungarians? The Fraser Institute estimates we could gain $19 billion a year simply reducing inefficiencies at the Canada-U.S. border. Heck, even if we doubled all exports to the EU tomorrow -- from $40 billion to $80 -- that'd still represent less than what Canada currently sells to just three U.S. states -- Washington, Michigan, and California. (The government is only estimating a 20 per cent trade boost, in any case).

I mention this not to dump on the EU deal -- $12 billion is certainly nothing to sneeze at -- just to remind that when it comes to trade, geography remains destiny.

To put it another way, before he wanders off, Stephen Harper might want to make sure he has a couple more words in his footnote.

Canada-EU Free Trade Deal: What You Need To Know