03/14/2013 12:05 EDT | Updated 05/14/2013 05:12 EDT

PM Harper says Canada considering options on Mali

Prime Minister Stephen Harper says Canada is still discussing options for a long-term engagement in Mali and said a C-17 transport plane on loan for the military mission in the country will be available as long as he feels it is needed.

In a news conference with French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault in Ottawa, Harper repeated that Canada is not seeking a combat role in Mali.

He seemed to leave the door open to a Canadian contribution to a possible UN peacekeeping mission in the country, something for which France is pushing.

"In terms of our longer term engagement, I think you know well we are not looking to have a combat, military mission there. We will certainly be providing development and humanitarian assistance. But the details of what our long-term engagement may be are still the subject of discussions we're having among our ministerial colleagues, our caucus, and as well obviously we're talking to the opposition parties about their preferences as well."

As for the C-17 transport plane Canada provided to carry troops, "It will remain there as long as we feel there is a need," Harper said.

Asked for clarification about whether he was referring to a possible UN peacekeeping mission, a spokeswoman for Harper didn't rule it out.

"Our officials are working closely with their French counterparts, and will assess any future requests for support," Julie Vaux said in an email to CBC News.

"Canada is not, and will not, be considering a Canadian combat role in Mali.... On peacekeeping and longer-term involvement, the PM said that our long-term engagement is still the subject of discussions that we are having among our ministerial colleagues, our caucus and we're obviously talking to the opposition parties on their preferences."

A senior official later said the government will consider all requests as they come in, but a peacekeeping mission is speculative. Canadian assistance will focus primarily on development and humanitarian aid.

'Sensitive' issues in trade deal

Harper and Ayrault both sounded optimistic about being able to reach a Canada-EU trade deal initially billed as the most wide-ranging and ambitious trade agreement ever.

Harper admitted all issues blocking a Canada-EU trade deal need to be resolved before it can go ahead, but said Canada won't sign an agreement unless it's comprehensive and in the best interest of the economy.

The EU has since started talks on a similar deal with the U.S. The deal with Canada had been expected to be finished by the end of 2012. Both sides say they are down to a handful of difficult points to resolve.

"There remain some important issues to resolve and obviously nothing is resolved until everything is resolved," Harper said.

"Obviously we will only sign a deal when we're convinced we have a deal that's comprehensive and in the best interest of the Canadian economy."

Harper emphasized the Canada-EU deal would be important for getting a deal with the U.S. too.

Negotiations 'progressing very well'

Ayrault agreed the negotiations are "progressing very well."

"The most sensitive issues have to do with balanced exchanges in the agricultural sector. You have a concern about beef and pork and we have a concern about poultry, so I'm sure we will be able to move closer together for a fair exchange," he said.

Intellectual property is another concern, Ayrault noted.

"The French government is closely watching what will be in the final text as the negotiations are being directed by the European Union," he added.

Ayrault met with Harper on Wednesday afternoon, and the two attended a dinner for Ayrault that evening.

A joint declaration from the meeting between the two leaders touched on international security and the crisis in Syria.

Officials from the two countries signed agreements on:

- Youth mobility.

- Remembering 20th-century conflicts.

- Social security.

- Science and technology.

The memorandum on youth mobility agreement is normally low-level standard fare during a visit of a foreign leader to Ottawa.

But with growing numbers of French young people coming to Canada to seek opportunities because of the high cost of living in recession-ravaged Europe, the deal will aim to increase the number of Canadian young people seeking opportunities in France.