ATLANTA – A last-minute sprint toward a historic trade agreement has turned into yet another marathon negotiating session, as a few lingering issues including Canadian dairy have repeatedly delayed a deal announcement Sunday.
As a result a planned news conference to announce the deal was rescheduled from 4 p.m., to 6 p.m., then 8 p.m., and is now pushed to a time to be determined, in a fitting finale to a ministerial meeting marked by all-night negotiations that was supposed to last two days, then three, then four and is now in its fifth and probably final day.
It should become clear within hours whether these talks conclude under Canada’s current government, during the election campaign, or under the post-election government led by the Conservative party or one of its rivals. Whatever happens, the deal would still need to be approved by the next Parliament.
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Stephen Harper had planned for a quiet day off the election trail but it wound up consumed by trade talks, with the prime minister and Conservative leader getting briefing in Ottawa from the negotiating team in Atlanta.
The dynamics delaying the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal were explained by one of the trade ministers involved the 12-country talks. He said a struggle over next-generation pharmaceuticals has had a cascading effect on attempts to resolve other issues.
“Look, it’s not done yet,” said Australia’s Andrew Robb.
He explained that the U.S. and Australia had worked all night to resolve their differences on cutting-edge, cell-based medicines and made a breakthrough around 3 a.m.
He said they’d succeeded at establishing a model that bridges the gap between two entrenched positions: the more business-friendly, eight-year patent-style protections the U.S. wants for biologics, and the more patient-and-taxpayer-friendly five-year model preferred by Australia and others.
But that caused an uneven ripple effect. Some other countries weren’t pleased with the compromise, and now that discussion has become more multi-sided with two or three holdouts remaining, he said.
Canada’s not too involved in that skirmish. But the delay, according to Robb, wound up pushing other issues to the backburner until Sunday morning and they’re still being worked out.
Insiders say access to Canadian grocery shelves is chief among them. Negotiators have been haggling about how much foreign butter, condensed milk and other dairy products should be allowed into Canada.
New Zealand helped create the TPP project a decade ago and it wants to sell more butter in North America — especially in the United States. It says the U.S., however, won’t open its own agriculture sector until getting some assurance that American producers could sell more in Canada and Mexico.
Currently, 90 per cent of the Canadian dairy market is closed to foreign products. The system allows for stable incomes in farming communities, but limits options and drives up prices at the grocery store.
Representatives of the dairy lobby milled about the convention site late Sunday, professing to be still in the dark about what market-access offer Canada had made.
That last-minute suspense has cast a shadow of uncertainty over what appeared to be a done deal a few hours ago. Twelve countries including Canada appear on the verge of creating the world’s largest regional trade zone, which would usher in a series of economic changes on four continents and prompt months of heated debate starting with Canada’s election.
After five days of around-the-clock negotiations, an announcement appeared within reach Sunday on a pact that would cover 40 per cent of the world’s economy.
Some national delegations had already begun briefing other industry stakeholders on the contents, and there were plans for a press conference as well as briefings for Canadian media in Atlanta and Ottawa.
The agreement would reduce or eliminate barriers in a wide range of sectors and could lead to more Canadian exports of pork, beef, canola, high-tech machinery and a variety of other products.
It would also entrench new international trade standards in Asia, setting a template should any other countries in that fast-growing region — like China — want to join.
Other parts could be controversial in Canada. It’s expected to increase imports of foreign car parts and possibly dairy, which could mean lower prices and greater selection for consumers but also hurt some workers in both sectors.
Cue the political debates.
The deal would need to be ratified in national parliaments, and the NDP’s recent opposition to the TPP process is an early example of the political challenges it could face in several countries.
The biggest potential test would come in a few months, as U.S. Congress votes on the deal and conflicting pressures from the political left and right threaten to make that vote a nailbiter.
It’s unclear when the public might see the fine print — and whether it would be available before Canadians head to the polls Oct. 19. One of the outstanding sources of uncertainty is when a legal review might be completed of the actual text of the deal.
More details on that front, and on the agreement itself, would become clearer should this oft-delayed news conference ever actually occur.
An agreement would complete a decade-long process that began with four countries in Asia, and spread to the United States, then Latin America and Canada.
The state of play was summarized by New Zealand’s trade minister — who easily provided the most-memorable quote of the five-day meetings.
Under pressure to obtain foreign access for his own country’s dairy, he told one of his country’s newspapers that difficult compromises will have to be made.
He illustrated it with an unappetizing culinary metaphor.
“It’s got the smell of a situation we occasionally see which is that on the hardest core issues, there are some ugly compromises out there,” Tim Groser told New Zealand’s Weekend Herald.
“And when we say ugly, we mean ugly from each perspective — it doesn’t mean ‘I’ve got to swallow a dead rat and you’re swallowing foie gras.’ It means both of us are swallowing dead rats on three or four issues to get this deal across the line.”