06/17/2013 05:20 EDT | Updated 08/17/2013 05:12 EDT

Stephen Harper Announces New Humanitarian Aid For Syria At G8


Trade, taxes and transparency are on the agenda at the G8 summit in Northern Ireland, but a major development came Monday when the U.S. and the European Union announced they plan on launching free trade talks.

Leaders of the G8 nations were greeted at the summit site in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, by British Prime Minister David Cameron, the meeting's host, on Monday afternoon. Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrived after spending the last week visiting London, Paris and Dublin.

Tax evasion and transparency were the main topics scheduled for the two-day meeting, but the unrelenting crisis in Syria was also a prominent topic of discussions among the leaders.

Trade is also on the agenda, and a major announcement came when the United States and the European Union formally announced that they will be launching free trade talks in the coming months. Canada is currently in the process of negotiating a free trade deal with the EU.

"We're talking about what could be the biggest bilateral trade deal in history," Cameron said at a news conference. "This is a once-in-a-generation prize and we are determined to seize it."

Canada-EU trade negotiations have dragged on for years and the two sides are reportedly close to wrapping it up, but no announcements have been made.

Canadian officials at the summit said they are not worried about the launch of the U.S. talks, but others are not so sure.

"For Canada to get there first is essential because otherwise there's a high probability that Canada would simply have to sign on to whatever got negotiated by the U.S. and the EU," said Jason Langrish, executive director of the Canada Europe Round Table for Business.

At stake is a vision of boosting the value of transatlantic trade in goods and services that U.S. President Barack Obama said already exceeds $1 trillion US annually, as well as $4 trillion annually in investment in each other's economies.

"America and Europe have done extraordinary things before, and I believe we can forge an economic alliance as strong as our diplomatic and security alliances, which of course are the most powerful in history," Obama said alongside EU leaders.

The Americans and Europeans are set to kick off negotiations in Washington next month.

Syria stances differ

The question of how to find a way to stem the bloodshed in Syria caused some tension because of differing views over how to assist as rebels clash with President Bashar al-Assad.

Harper took a tough stand against Russian President Vladimir Putin ahead of the summit because of his support of the regime of al-Assad. Harper said on Sunday that Putin's support for "thugs" in Assad's regime isn't justifiable and that he doesn't expect the G7 countries to be able to shift Putin's position.

The prime minister announced Monday that Canada will provide $90 million in new financial support to humanitarian organizations operating in Syria and in neighbouring countries where refugees have fled including Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq. The commitment is in response to appeals from the UN and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent groups to provide food, clean water, sanitation, health care and shelter.

"The brutal Assad regime continues to wreak havoc on innocent Syrian civilians. Canada will continue to work with our allies to help the Syrian people," Harper said in a news release. "To address the growing crisis, Canada is providing significant additional support to help meet the humanitarian needs of vulnerable people in the region."

Including the new money announced Monday, Canada has committed more than $158 million in humanitarian assistance for Syrians, according to Harper's office. New aid for Jordan was announced separately on Sunday by Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird. Some of that money is to help Jordan cope with Syrian refugees who have poured across the border.

Harper hasn't followed his American counterpart Obama, who last week announced the U.S. would provide some military support to those fighting Assad. Harper has rejected that idea and said for now Canada's assistance will remain humanitarian in nature. The U.S. made that move after saying it had proof the Assad regime had used chemical weapons.

Obama held a call on Friday evening to discuss Syria with just four of the G8 leaders: Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President François Hollande and Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta.

Harper met earlier in the day with Letta and Syria was a topic of discussion, as was the Canada-EU trade deal that is still being negotiated. He also had a bilateral meeting with Merkel on Monday and with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

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