Canada marks 40 years of relations with European Union

Post Brexit, Canada's ties with European Unon remain strong

When a young Jeremy Kinsman joined the staff of the Canadian Mission to the European Economic Community in 1968 as its first political officer, the office conditions were less than ideal. “I don’t think most people knew we had a mission. It was just a start up mission and it was in the attic of the Canadian Embassy to Belgium.”

Working in cramped quarters, Kinsman notes that Canada’s ambassador to Belgium doubled as the ambassador to the European Community. The work was of a limited, technical nature as Canada’s trading relationship with the then six members of the European Community was relatively small.

Canada’s most important economic relationship was with the American market. “We’d allowed our country to become what was called a branch plant economy of the United States,” notes Kinsman. “It made our vulnerability to sudden decision-making acute.”

Reacting to a number of economic stresses, in 1971 U.S. President Richard Nixon unleashed chaos in the global economy by abandoning the gold standard and imposing an import surcharge.

For Canadian officials, “It was a traumatic shock,” Kinsman said. “It led us to ask obviously: where is the logical place where we can diversify our economic relationships, and there was only one really at that time – it was Europe.”

The UK was then Canada’s second largest trading partner. With its entry into the European Community in 1973, Canadian officials pushed to build upon established Commonwealth links by deepening trading ties with the European Community which had expanded to nine members that year.

With European skepticism of American global influence, the prospect of a preferential trade agreement with Canada and the European Community was not then on the table. Kinsman recalls that many of the EEC’s leaders “had a deep suspicion about the United States as the dominant culture and the dominant power in the world and they saw the European project as essentially an alternative model.” Canada’s close relationship to the U.S. made a preferential agreement with Europe impossible. “That made it difficult for us to get a trade agreement so we struggled for words and we came up with something called a ‘contractual arrangement’ which had the notion of the contract in it,” says Kinsman,

In February 1976, the European Commission established a diplomatic presence in Ottawa and in July signed the Framework Agreement for commercial and economic co-operation between the European Communities and Canada. “It was meant to be a stimulant to deeper and richer relations, which was the whole point. And in a limited way it did launch that,” says Kinsman. “It was the first agreement of its kind between the EEC and an industrialized country.”

Today, the EU is Canada’s second largest trading partner. In 2014, the value of bilateral trade in goods and services was approximately $125 billion and growing.

It took a lot of work to get to this point, Kinsman notes. As the European Community expanded into today’s 28-member European Union, its relationship with Canada deepened, especially after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. “They agreed to a special relationship with Canada that was very much centred on promoting democracy, about the new world that we inhabited together, and their foreign policy instincts began to track identically with ours,“ said Kinsman. “We became leaders in the new areas that were going on in human security. It started with the land mines treaty but it continued with the creation of the International Criminal Court, and the ‘responsibility to protect’ project.”

Earlier this year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau signalled that his government expects shortly to complete the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with the EU. The agreement will strengthen transatlantic co-operation on a number of priority areas, and tariffs will be reduced by over 99 per cent. It is a watershed moment in Canada-EU relations bringing to fruition the tentative first steps of economic co-operation started in 1976.

Unlike 40 years ago, Kinsman – who served from 2002 to 2006 as Canada’s Ambassador to the EU – notes that EU leaders now see Canada’s close relationship with the U.S. as a benefit to expanding transatlantic co-operation. “I’m a deep believer in the necessity of strengthening the North American continent, not defensively necessarily, but rationally in creating common infrastructure and a whole lot of things, common projects like climate change and energy and bringing NAFTA up to date to dealing with today’s issues.“ With CETA on the horizon as well as the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the EU and U.S., Kinsman hopes that a combined approach brings enhanced transatlantic co-operation. “Those two things long term I see being merged into a relationship between North America and the European Union.”

Kinsman believes that universities have an important role to play in shaping the evolving Canada-EU relationship. University of Victoria is home to a vibrant European Studies Program. The EU funds three Jean Monnet Chairs in EU Studies (the only Canadian university with this honour) and one of Canada’s five EU Centres of Excellence that promotes the study of Europe from a multi-disciplinary perspective. UVic’s innovative project (European Studies Network in Canada) is a country-wide network for knowledge mobilization in Canada’s European Studies community.

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