Canadian Foreign Minister Stresses Value of Multilateralism, Outlines Trade Priorities

8 June 2017

Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland called for taking steps to support multilateralism and the rules-based international order during a speech in Ottawa, Canada, on 6 June, along with outlining her country’s approach to certain foreign policy priorities such as trade, climate action, and women’s rights.

The speech overall touched on a series of issues, based around the current context of the changing international order, with the Canadian official referring in some instances to the political dynamic in the United States in recent months.

“International relationships that had seemed immutable for 70 years are being called into question. From Europe, to Asia, to our own North American home, long-standing pacts that have formed the bedrock of our security and prosperity for generations are being test,” she said.

Freeland in particular highlighted the value of post-war institutions such as the WTO that have helped cement the current rules-based system, and warned against taking them “for granted.”

“Two global conflicts and the Great Depression, all in the span of less than half a century, taught our parents and grandparents that national borders must be inviolate; that international trading relationships created not only prosperity but also peace; and that a true world community, one based on shared aspirations and standards, was not only desirable but essential to our very survival,” she said.

The speech by the Canadian official comes at a time when the debate over globalisation, trade, and technology’s benefits and risks continues to dominate discussions at the national and international levels, in domestic elections and international summits.

One of the most recent examples was the G7 leaders’ meeting in Taormina, Italy, last month, which saw leaders sign off on language promoting free, fair trade and investment, along with reiterating past pledges to tackle protectionism – after an earlier debate in multiple forums over how to address these topics going forward. Such issues are slated to come to the fore again in the G20 summit this coming July in Hamburg, Germany. (See Bridges Weekly, 1 June 2017)

Speaking at the House of Commons on Tuesday, Freeland repeatedly referred to one of the largest political shifts seen in recent memory – notably, the change in leadership in the United States earlier this year under President Donald Trump.

“Canada is grateful, and will always be grateful, to our neighbour for the outsized role it has played in the world. And we seek and will continue to seek to persuade our friends that their continued international leadership is very much in the national interest – as well as that of the free world,” she said, while noting that the decision on the US’ future role lies in the hands of that country’s voters.

Trade: Avoid “beggar thy neighbour” policies

In her speech, Freeland particularly highlighted her government’s approach to trade, and its continued commitment to the rules-based international trading system – along with its plans to pursue free trade agreements with current and new partners.

In a nod to the ongoing debate over protectionism, globalisation, and free and fair trade, she repeatedly referred to the gains seen in recent decades from having a rules-based system, and warned against trade restrictions and “beggar thy neighbour policies” that could have harmful implications across the board.

She also indicated that trade should not be made the scapegoat in efforts to reduce inequalities that have emerged among and within countries, calling instead for domestic policies – including education and retraining – that could instead address the evolving nature of today’s technological and labour landscape.

Freeland also highlighted a few key elements of Canada’s foreign trade agenda going forward, including with relation to the US.

Canada, Mexico, and the United States are soon due to begin talks to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the trilateral trade accord that governs commercial relationships among the three neighbours. Those negotiations would begin by mid-August or later, pending internal processes in these countries. (See Bridges Weekly, 24 May 2017, and related story in this edition)

“We look forward to working with our continental partners to modernise the North American Free Trade Agreement, and to making a great trading relationship even better,” she said, while also pledging that Ottawa will be seeking to replicate the “template” of its trade accord with the European Union in future trade negotiations.

That trade agreement, known as the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), is due to be provisionally applied in the coming months. Proponents say that it is the most ambitious deal either party has ever negotiated. Full application will be pending ratification by EU member states, by national and/or regional legislatures as required. (See Bridges Weekly, 18 May 2017)

Climate change, gender issues

Freeland also spoke extensively on the imperative for international climate action, reiterating earlier criticisms by her government over US President Donald Trump’s move last week to withdraw his country from the UN’s Paris Agreement on climate change.

“Climate change is by definition a shared menace, affecting every single person on this planet,” she said, while pledging that Ottawa would continue working with Washington and sub-national US actors “for constructive progress on the environment, wherever we can find them.”

Another policy area that Freeland highlighted as key for her government was gender, noting that women’s rights lie “at the core of our foreign policy,” and flagging in particular the government’s support for reproductive and abortion rights.

Canadian officials, she said, are due to release a “feminist international assistance policy” within days, with the rationale that women’s economic empowerment domestically and abroad is essential for economic growth and prosperity.

While not referred to specifically in this week’s speech, Ottawa has also moved recently towards incorporating gender concerns into its approach to trade policy. Indeed, earlier this week Canada and Chile announced that they had updated their existing trade deal to include a new chapter on gender and trade.

The chapter reaffirms international agreements relevant to these topics, along with areas where the two sides can cooperate further to enable women to better access the benefits of the bilateral trade accord. It also establishes a bilateral “Trade and Gender Committee,” with a series of tasks aimed at supporting cooperation, knowledge-sharing, and other efforts to address gender issues related to trade.

The Canada-Chile accord dates back to 1997, covering various areas related to goods and services trade. The deal has already been updated in previous years to include additional provisions, ranging from financial services to technical barriers to trade.

“All Canadians and Chileans will undoubtedly welcome the modernisation of this agreement, particularly the dedicated chapter on trade and gender, which reinforces the Government of Canada’s commitment to advancing gender equality and to creating real opportunity for the middle class, especially women and the girls who will be the next generation of entrepreneurs, board members, and CEOs,” said François-Philippe Champagne, Canada’s trade minister.

Canadian officials have also highlighted that including such a chapter has never been done by a G20 economy. The updates will still need to undergo domestic approval processes in both countries before taking effect.

ICTSD reporting; “Foreign Minister Freeland’s speech will unveil a Canadian foreign policy rooted in multilateralism,” NATIONAL POST, 5 June 2017; “Canada and Chile push gender equality through trade,” FRANCE 24, 6 June 2017.

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