Mr. Speaker, it is with great pleasure that I rise to speak to the Canada-European Union free trade agreement. This is of course an outstanding initiative many years in the making. The reasons to support it are very simple.
At the bottom line, when the study was done in advance of the commencement of negotiations on this Canada-Europe free trade agreement, the study revealed that based on the assumptions it was looking at, an agreement of this nature would deliver an annual boost to the Canadian economy of some $12 billion. That is not small change. That is significant money and it would make a big difference in people's lives. What is also significant is that study was undertaken many years ago, and the likely benefits with the passage of time and the growth of economies are in fact much greater than that. That is the cornerstone we look at: a $12-billion boost in the economy, and that would mean a real difference in the lives of ordinary people, of workers, and of companies across Canada that would have the opportunity to benefit from that.
When I became Canada's trade minister, this negotiation was under way and I very quickly ensured that it became our number one trade priority, the focus of our policy and of our energies. I saw in this potential trade agreement the ability for us to do great things, to really be able to benefit, and that it was in fact a tailor-made opportunity for Canada. For Canada, we also benefited from the fact that it was a bit of a trial run in the negotiations for later negotiating with the United States, but it also meant that we in Canada were in a kind of privileged position. From a trading perspective, we were in a position better than that of any other country in the world.
We had already, through Canada-U.S. free trade and then the North American Free Trade Agreement, tremendous access to our neighbours to the south: the United States, the largest economy in the world. Together with the European Union, they are the two largest economies in the world. Should Canada get this agreement in place, we would be the only significant major developed economy in the world with free trade agreements in place with both the United States and the European Union, the two largest economies in the world.
Picture what potential and opportunity lie there. Suppose individuals anywhere in the world want to set up a manufacturing plant or a business in a place where they can have access to the two biggest markets in the world. They would look at the facts, at the agreements in place, and they would come to the inescapable conclusion that there is one good place to do that, and that place is Canada. That is why this agreement is so important. That is why this agreement would attract significant investment.
When I was trade minister, as we were promoting this I often spoke with potential investors and they talked about the things that made Canada attractive. Some of those things are not as strong now as they were then, including things like our very significant low debt which meant that taxes could stay low for the long term, and our low taxes that meant that it would be very competitive to work in Canada. Some of that has eroded in the past year or so under the current government and the trajectory it is on. That being said, we are still in a pretty good position there. We have other advantages including the most skilled workforce in the world. This additional piece of access to these two great markets is something that would make a tremendous difference to a lot of those investors, and the reason why they were looking at investing in Canada. That would mean jobs for Canadians.
There are other reasons why I think that the straightforward calculus in the study of the potential benefit here underestimates the potential that Canada has. That is because for Europe we have such a significant population, a diaspora from every single country in the European Union that we have the potential, through those ties and linkages, to really capitalize. We have ties of people and ties of language. In this country there are people who speak every single language in the European Union. We have ties of culture and even ties of family and ties of having done business in the past. Those linkages provide the structure on which we can build a transatlantic relationship of strong trade through those diaspora populations. It represents a real opportunity.
For Canada, our trading relationship has benefited, obviously, enormously from the proximity of the United States and our cultural similarity there, and that is why that is such a strong trading relationship.
In some ways it has been almost too easy for Canadian businesses and entrepreneurs to say that they are just going to focus on the United States, because it is there, it is easy, its people have the same language, we watch the same television programs, they can talk to them about what happened on the Grammy Awards last night and we all know what each other are talking about. Canadians have chosen that route, sometimes to the exclusion of other opportunities in the world, all too often simply because it is that easy, and it is hard to criticize people for doing that.
However, with the Canada-European Union free trade agreement, we have an opportunity to do something a little bit different, because of the nature of that diaspora population, because of the strong affection of the people from those countries who live here in Canada and have roots in those countries. It is because of their desire to maintain those ties, and I think because of their recognition of their understanding of linkages and the ties they have through family, through people, and through knowing the culture. They recognize that there is a real opportunity for them without having to go through many of the challenges of familiarizing themselves with the way of doing business in a new country. They are already halfway there, and that provides a tremendous opportunity for them.
I can tell members that, as trade minister, I have worked extensively in putting together support for this agreement, which was near universal among those diaspora communities and among the chambers of commerce. For example, we had a Canada-Austria chamber of commerce and a German chamber of commerce. All of these groups already existed, and a couple more formed, so that we had one for virtually every single country in the European Union that was looking to encourage those ties and prepare for the day when we would get this Canada-European Union free trade agreement in place. By orienting them to think that way, to get ready for it, to prepare to capitalize on the opportunities that would follow, Canada has enormous potential to do that. It was one of those things I was working on when I was trade minister and of which I was very proud.
If we look at that potential for Canada, it is tremendous. The potential for this agreement is positive, as all trade agreements, if done properly and negotiated well. Canada has a tremendous track record. Certainly our Conservative government did very well with the agreements that it negotiated. They all have the potential to be win-win situations, where a rising tide lifts all boats, and people through good agreements benefit from what each other have to offer.
Of course, with Europe, there are other advantages. An agreement can be negotiated on good terms, because we have similar high environmental standards, similar high labour standards, and a similar high standard of living. Therefore, we are not looking at unusual disadvantages. We also have similar cultural and legal roots and systems, all of which means that we can work well and do business well together once that trade agreement is in place.
However, there are other very good reasons why this trade agreement offers opportunity for us, and it goes beyond the straightforward economic. I look at the Canada-European Union free trade agreement in some ways an an extension of positive foreign policy for Canada.
I think Canada is a model country to the world, but this is also an opportunity for us to continue what we certainly were doing in the previous government, which is working to advance our Canadian values on the world stage. We should be proud of what those Canadian values are. We should not be shy about advancing them on the world stage. Our support for human rights, the rule of law, democracy, and freedom are very important fundamental values.
Members may think that when we are talking about Europe, these are all settled questions. However, as we have seen through the scope of the past century, Europe has been wrought by conflict, and we significantly saw a period of half a century where Europe was divided between a Soviet-ruled communist-dominated east, and our free and democratic western models. Economically, there was no contest, which is one of the reasons, ultimately, that the Soviet Union and those communist systems collapsed, and I will speak more about that later.
However, we have an opportunity to provide, through a trade agreement and further ties, greater reinforcement and support for the development of a democratization and stabilization process of those countries. This is particularly the case in an era where we see a somewhat more assertive Russia under the leadership of Putin, where they are looking to expand their sphere of influence to try and have adverse influences on some of the countries around them.
I am thinking particularly of the Baltic countries: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania; and, of course, there are the other former communist countries: Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, Poland, Bulgaria, and Romania. These are all part of the European Union. It is important for us to strengthen those economic ties, so that we can help to anchor all of those countries more firmly into the west.
There is an economic dimension, but there is a very strong political dimension. It is a geostrategic dimension. All of those countries already have EU membership. NATO membership has been incredibly important to them. This is an opportunity to layer on top of that, through trade agreements, further ties that are economic and people oriented, which will help to anchor them in the west.
As I said, that is becoming increasingly important. There was a time, when we thought the Cold War was over, that these were considerations that we did not need to concern ourselves with. As we know, sadly that has been changing, and it has been changing over time. If one looks at some of the risks that exist from an aggressive Putin government, the first example, of course, was the intervention of the Russians in Georgia. On the pretext of dealing with challenges in the Abkhazia and South Ossetia republics, which were restive republics, there was a lot of Russian interference. It might be added, in fact, that this was Russian occupation in the form of what were so-called peacekeepers and observers. Ultimately, a conflict was provoked in Georgia, which was, under leadership of Mikheil Saakashvili, pursuing a very strong policy moving to the west, moving to become part of NATO, becoming part of the European Union. In fact, even though it was not part of the European Union, they had that flag flying.
The objective of Putin was to try to stop them from turning to the west. He did successfully provoke a conflict, which I think has had the very unfortunate after-effect of making the balance of the NATO countries reluctant, particularly those in Europe, in taking on Georgia as a member of NATO, notwithstanding that was and has been their clear and expressed preference. We in the Conservative Party believe strongly that countries should have the freedom to choose their allies, that no other country, such as Russia, should be able to impose a veto on that.
However, one of the lessons that was learned from the Georgia experience was that one of the critical decision points was the decision of the NATO members not to extend a membership action plan to Georgia, which seemed to be the event that triggered, that shone the green light for Putin to move in there and create instability.
Similarly, we saw the same thing happen in Ukraine. It was following the Euromaidan uprising to restore democracy and freedom there, and, again, a desire by the people to turn to the west, that provided the excuse, and the basis or the motivation for Putin to move on to the annexation of Crimea, and, of course, the occupation of parts of the Donbass region with the conflict that continues there, which indeed may be escalating in recent days and weeks.
That is why it is so important for us, on another trade agreement, to continue that process towards the trade agreement with Ukraine. It is, again, part of that process of anchoring them, as their population overwhelmingly wants to be anchored, to the west, to the European Union, to NATO.
However, the clear strategic objective of Putin is to try to prevent that from happening and to create a situation of military instability.
We have an opportunity within the European Union, through this agreement, to keep that from being repeated in places like Poland and the Baltics. They have very genuine and well-based fears that this could happen. There are countries like Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, that are on the front lines against Russia and have experienced Soviet occupation in the past. We have an opportunity, through our current efforts there, to change that. We have a military deployment there, for which I congratulate the Liberal government. There is a very wise initiative that it has undertaken to provide a deployment to Latvia, to show that we, Canada, are committed strongly to our NATO partners. We are showing resolve under article 5 and sending a clear signal that, should an effort be made to instigate an asymmetrical aggression or something like that in the Baltics, we would resist that. We can, through our free trade agreement, also provide those strong linkages there.
That is important in the Baltics, particularly if we look at the geostrategic situation right now. Right across the border, they have what is called the 76th Guards Air Assault Division, the Pskov battalion. That is literally right across the border from the Baltics. Why should we be concerned about them? These are the most aggressive end of the Russian military. They were involved in the Chechin campaigns. They were there in the Georgian campaign. They have been there in the annexation of Crimea and the Donbass. They have conducted very aggressive military manoeuvres on a continual basis on the borders and in the air space of the Baltic countries.
For that reason, everything we can do to show our strong economic and trade ties to these people will help advance our foreign policy objectives for stability in that area. There are also growth opportunities in these countries. When we have trade agreements, we want to have them with high-growth economies. Where do we find high-growth economies that are compatible? Those former Communist countries of the European Union, because they were held back for half a century, have been doing catch-up, and that means high economic growth and great opportunities for trade agreements.
For example, the European Union's average economic growth in the decade or so from 2004-15, was 1%, but listen to these numbers. Bulgaria, over the same time, had 2.8% average economic growth annually. Czech was 2.4%; Estonia, 2.6%; Latvia, 2.7%; Lithuania 3.1%; Poland, on fire, 3.8%; Romania 2.9%; and Slovakia 3.9%. These are tiger economies.
I look at a country like Estonia, a real model tiger economy, and it has a 10% debt-to-GDP ratio. We in Canada are pretty proud of our 31%. The European Union averages 85%. I might add that our 31% was at the end of the Harper government, in contrast to the Chrétien government when it was at 64%, a number I think we are heading back to pretty quickly under the current government. The fact is, that is a positive example of where there is economic growth. It is a country with policies such as two years of fully paid maternity leave and a low flat tax rate. These are the kind of people we want as our compatible trading partners. These are the people from whom we can benefit. These are high-growth economies for the foreseeable future.
When we look at trade agreements around the world, the logical thing is to look to those high-growth economies. Because they were held back for 50 years, that also means that their trading relationships are not as lengthy and established. So much in that Soviet era was, of course, to Russia and back. They want to turn more and more to the west, and that means we have more opportunity to create new economic ties, to benefit from that, and to help them benefit from those kinds of economic ties.
One of my focuses as trade minister was to always deal with those countries, to look at building those ties, to look for the opportunities that exist there. There is the country of Slovakia, with a tremendous auto parts industry. We have a pretty good track record on auto parts and auto assembly ourselves. These are the kinds of linkages that we should be looking for, not just the old, big companies. I know people like to worry about the Bombardiers and the SNC-Lavalins. However, we have an opportunity, through our diaspora communities and our smaller populations, to get into those countries. Their desire to do it in a free enterprise trading way is so strong because of that half a century of being left behind and what that did to their living standards, what that did for their thirst for freedom, their thirst for free enterprise, their thirst for opportunities to advance themselves.
That is why support for the Canada-European Union free trade agreement is not surprisingly strongest in exactly those countries. They share with us those same geopolitical strategic imperatives, and also that same desire for success and economic growth, and opportunity and advancement.
I am very proud to stand in support of what I think is one of the proudest legacies of our Conservative government. I am very proud to see the current Liberal government continuing to ensure that it is put in place, to show to the world that Canada is a country that is proud of its free trading track record, at a time when there are forces of protectionism under way. We were lucky to have Stephen Harper at the helm in 2008 when the global economic downturn took place. If it were not for his forceful voice in the room at meetings like the G20 meeting in Pennsylvania, at that critical time, we might have seen a wave of protectionism. However, we did not see that.
We saw a commitment to keep borders open and to keep trade strong. Those forces against that are still there, but Canada can and should remain a model. We have willing partners to do that in the Canada-European trade agreement, and I encourage everyone in the House to support it.