09/29/2014 04:26 EDT | Updated 11/29/2014 05:59 EST

Ed Fast defends 'critical event' leading to free flight for EU leaders

Conservative MPs are defending the decision to fly European officials home after adding a last-minute event to their schedule of events in Canada last week — an event the opposition derided as a public relations move.

CBC News revealed Sunday that Prime Minister Stephen Harper gave visiting European delegates a free flight home to Brussels last week on a Canadian Forces Airbus, after adding a Toronto reception to their schedule.

That reception made it impossible for the visitors to make a planned commercial flight from Ottawa, and thereby get to a Saturday meeting in Brussels. The cost of the Airbus flight is estimated at more than $300,000.

- EXCLUSIVE| Stephen Harper gives pricey free ride home to European leaders

- INTERACTIVE | Canada-EU trade deal

"The downside of the PM's very very very bad week was that it cost Canadian taxpayers half a million dollars for a photo op," NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus said in question period.

"I'd like the minister to tell us how much did it cost in terms of flights and security for this faux second signing of this trade deal?"

Trade Minister Ed Fast didn't answer Angus's question, but said the event in Toronto was "a critical element" of the visit, and that the NDP is "anti-trade."

Emails obtained by CBC News showed the event was added only four days before the European officials arrived. The summit was held in Ottawa and the only event on the schedule in Toronto was the reception attended by Harper, the EU dignitaries and several hundred representatives of the business community.

"On this [Conservative] side [of the House] we understand how important trade and investment are to driving economic growth and long-term prosperity in this country," Fast said.

Shouldn't be paying for 'props'

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May pointed out that European politicians haven't reached "a full agreement" on the deal and the text hasn't been tabled in Parliament, but that the government has held two signing ceremonies. 

"I think we ought to have a statute of limitation on how often this thing can be signed, and let's cap the total cost," she said.

"It's absolutely shocking. Stephen Harper once represented the viewpoint in this country that didn't want to see taxpayers dollars squandered. He seems to have forgotten that somewhere along the way."

May said the signings "are just so many photo ops."

"Canadians shouldn't be paying for the props."

Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council, and Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, were in Ottawa Friday to sign a free-trade agreement between Canada and the European Union.

The two European leaders normally fly commercial and arrived in Ottawa on an Air Canada flight from the United Nations meeting in New York.

However, just four days before the summit, the Harper government added a reception for the Toronto business community to the itinerary — meaning the visiting delegation would miss the flight to Brussels. For that reason, Harper offered them the Canadian Forces Airbus he normally uses himself on foreign trips.

The last-minute change of plan caused officials to scramble to provide extra motorcades and security for the two visiting leaders, beyond the level that they would normally get as so-called "Level 3s" for protocol and security purposes. The two are not ranked as high as heads of states or prime ministers.

The modified Airbus A310 costs $22,537 an hour to operate, according to official figures in 2012. The price has likely risen since then, but, at that rate, and assuming 15 hours' flight time from Toronto to Brussels and back, the trip would have cost $338,055.

Correction : An earlier version of this story said that the prime minister's plane is an Airbus 320. In fact, his plane is a modified Airbus A310.(Sep 29, 2014 7:22 AM)