Stephen Harper: “Under our Conservative government, Canada is going to have virtually unfettered access for our world-class products, workers and investors in 43 countries across the world … compared to just five when we took office.”
By: Dana Wagner on
Stephen Harper, Prime Minister and Conservative MP for Calgary Southwest, in a speech on March 18, 2015
The Prime Minister said that with his government, Canada will have free trade with 43 countries. If a concluded agreement with the EU is ratified soon, adding 28 countries to Canada’s current 15 trading partners, this is true.FactsCan Score: True
In a recent speech praising his government’s record on signing free trade agreements (FTAs), Stephen Harper said, “under our Conservative government, Canada is going to have virtually unfettered access for our world-class products, workers and investors in 43 countries across the world … compared to just five when we took office.”
According to the Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada site, it is true that when the Conservatives took office in 2006, there were FTAs with five countries. One is the North American Free Trade Agreement with the United States and Mexico, plus three individual agreements with Israel, Chile and Costa Rica.
And the 43 countries under this Conservative government?
This is an interesting claim. Harper did not say that 43 countries currently trade freely with Canada, but that they will under this government. That makes it a prediction, but with such a specific number, these 43 countries either should have entered an FTA with Canada, or there should be reasonable belief that they soon will.
From 2006 to today, FTAs with 10 countries came into force. These are: Peru, Colombia, Jordan, Panama, Honduras, and Korea under individual agreements, and Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland under a goods-only regional agreement. Another deal with the European Union was concluded in August 2014, and that will bring 28 countries into free trade with Canada when it enters into force, which may occur as early as 2016 and depends on ratification by the EU.
That’s a total of 38 countries covered by agreements now in force or soon to be. Add in the pre-existing five, for a total of 43.
Here’s the count breakdown:
Pre-2006 FTAs: 5 countries
New FTAs: 6 countries
New goods-only FTA: 4 countries
Concluded, but not yet in force FTA: 28 countries
Now, there are two problems with Harper’s statement: First is that the Conservatives may not be in power in 2016, so Canada may not have access to the 28 EU countries under this government. However, we can interpret Harper’s claim to mean ‘thanks to this government’ Canada will have a free trade with the EU, which is safe to assume as true.
Second, generalizations about multiple trade agreements will always be problematic. A more precise statement would be that Canada is going to have degrees of unfettered access for our world-class products, workers or investors. This nuance is important because four of the 43 countries are covered by a goods-only agreement, and because every agreement contains its own exceptions to “unfettered access.” As Debra Steger, an international trade expert at the University of Ottawa, pointed out, “most FTAs, including NAFTA, do not provide completely ‘unfettered access.’” There are typically exceptions, like agriculture under NAFTA, and like the recognition of foreign professional qualifications (still up to the regulatory bodies) under the Canada-EU agreement.
Finally, it should be noted that Harper’s statement provides no explanation for the relatively low number of FTAs prior to 2006. It was not for lack of negotiating activity, said Patrick Leblond, a visiting fellow at the European University Institute. In the early 2000s, the Liberal government was engaged in a complex international negotiation, the Doha Round among members of the World Trade Organization. “It is only when it was clear that the Doha negotiations were going nowhere that Canada began looking seriously at bilateral/regional agreements, which the Europeans and Americans, and some Asian countries, had already begun to negotiate,” said Leblond.
Despite these caveats, it remains true that FTAs with 43 countries are now or are soon to be in force.