Mr. Chairman and honourable members of the committee, thank you very much for inviting the representatives from the embassies here in Ottawa, the three EFTA states, to appear before this distinguished committee to express our views on this very important EFTA-Canada free trade agreement and see how it will open up opportunities by bringing down trade barriers for all countries involved.
The proposal to create a free trade area between Canada and the four member states of the European Free Trade Association was launched by the then Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien in October 1997. The EFTA states warmly welcomed the Canadian initiative. Canada is an important trading partner for the EFTA states and free trade between the countries would be greatly beneficial for both sides. The negotiations with Canada have commanded a great deal of attention as Canada and the EFTA states are not only strong trading partners but also enjoy close cultural relations.
After exploratory meetings, the two sides embarked upon free trade negotiations in October 1998. Between 1998 and 2000, EFTA and Canada held 10 rounds of free trade negotiations. An agreement was reached on most issues, but the negotiations stalled in May 2000 because of a single issue, the dismantling of tariffs on ships, as Canada insisted on maintaining its customs duties on ships produced in the EFTA states.
After the negotiations stalled in early 2000, the EFTA side made several attempts to relaunch the negotiations. Even the fact that Norway abolished its subsidies for shipbuilding on December 31, 2000, did not pave the way for a conclusion of the free trade agreement. In an effort to find a solution that would make it possible to conclude the negotiations, the EFTA states tabled on January 30, 2004, a proposal for a generous scheme on the dismantling of tariffs on ships that should fully meet the concerns expressed by Canada in the negotiations. It involved a dismantling period for sensitive products of 15 years and, in addition to that, effective defence measures against possible future state aid.
On December 6, 2004, the then Prime Minister of Iceland, Mr. Halldór Ásgrímsson, sent a letter to the Canadian Prime Minister, Mr. Paul Martin, requesting immediate resumption of the talks. Prime Minister Martin replied on March 14, 2005, to the letter from the Icelandic Prime Minister that Canada had conducted a detailed review of its bilateral and regional trade and investment policy strategy, including its position on re-engaging with EFTA; however, due to the sensitive nature of the outstanding issues, it might be several weeks before Canada would be in a position to formally respond to EFTA's last proposal.
On May 4, 2006, we, the EFTA ambassadors in Ottawa, met with Mr. David Emerson, Minister of International Trade in the present Government of Canada. At that meeting, Mr. Emerson indicated that the administration was preparing an internal report on the relations with EFTA and stock-taking with the aim of having a meeting with EFTA in September 2006. In our discussions with Minister Emerson, it became evident that he aimed to strengthen Canada's strategic opportunities in external trade by securing preferential access to new markets. At the same time, he underlined his concern regarding the Canadian shipbuilding industry, which would have to be stepped up and helped to become globally competitive.
The same concerns about the domestic shipbuilding industry were expressed by the then Minister of Industry, Maxime Bernier, when we, the ambassadors, met with him in August 2006. The subsequent stock-taking and informal discussions led up to formal negotiations, which now have resulted in a free trade agreement signed by respective ministers from Canada and the EFTA states.
Iceland's membership in EFTA in 1970 marked a turning point in Iceland's foreign relations. Through its membership, Iceland became a full participant in a free trade association, and for the first time Iceland undertook obligations on free trade in industrial products.
The agreement creating the European Economic Area, the EEA agreement, was negotiated between the European Community--the then member states--and seven member countries of the EFTA, and it was signed in May 1992. Subsequently, Switzerland decided not to participate, following a referendum, and three others joined the EU. The EEA agreement entered into force on January 1, 1994.
The EEA was maintained because of the wish of the three remaining countries--Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein--to participate in the internal market while not assuming the full responsibilities of EU membership. The establishment of the EEA in 1994 was a major step we took together with other EFTA countries at the time. The EEA provided access to the EU's internal market, with freedom of movement of goods, services, labour, and capital in the whole area. We consider the EEA to be a remarkable success and a durable arrangement. We follow developments within the EU very closely. After all, the EU is by far our biggest trading partner, and some of our closest friends are members. We wish the EU well and want to see it succeed in its endeavours. However, there are no pressing reasons for Iceland to join the union. Indeed, there are certain matters, such as the EU's common fisheries policy, that would make joining highly problematic. Active participation in international cooperation, freedom of trade, and increased access to markets are prerequisites for the future strengthening of Icelandic industries.
Now, as before, the number of business opportunities is greatest where growth is fastest. For this reason, we are looking further afield than our traditional trading partners. With EFTA, Iceland has negotiated free trade agreements with numerous countries in Africa, South America, and Asia.
In all, Iceland is now a party to free trade agreements with 53 states, with a total of one billion inhabitants. It can be expected that Colombia, Peru, Thailand, and the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council will join that number through agreements with EFTA. This year EFTA will begin free trade negotiations with India. Bilateral negotiations between Iceland and China on a free trade agreement are well under way.
Iceland and Canada have shared close and friendly ties over a long period of time. A large proportion of the Icelandic population, actually about 20% of all Icelanders, migrated to Canada during the latter part of the 19th century and the early part of the last century. Today we find, by far, the largest Icelandic population outside Iceland in Canada, and estimates are that the number of Icelanders in the Canadian Icelandic community exceeds 100,000.
Trade volume between our countries has been moderate, but it is our belief that there is an ever-increasing interest by the Icelandic private sector to expand activities in Canada. The same can be said about Canadian interests in Iceland. The new EFTA-Canada free trade agreement will definitely have a very positive snowball effect.
Bearing in mind the profound friendship and long-lasting cultural and human relations between Iceland and Canada, two components have been strikingly lacking: a more active and productive trade relationship, and direct air communications. Today we have to travel by air through the United States or even London, England, to get between Iceland and Canada. Fortunately, this will change when Icelandair starts operating its scheduled flights to Toronto and Halifax on a year-round basis this coming spring. Thanks to the new open skies policy of the Canadian government, an air services agreement between Iceland and Canada is finally in place and being implemented. This fact is undoubtedly going to contribute greatly to two-way commercial links between our countries.
From our perspective, the free trade agreement will provide great benefits for trade between Canada and Iceland and EFTA as a whole. l would like to mention just a few arguments in this respect.
The creation of a free trade area would be beneficial for both sides, since it would improve access to the markets of the other side. It would thus create reciprocal advantages and increase geographical diversification of trade—among others, in the offshore sector, where closer cooperation might lead to meaningful know-how transfer, to the benefit of the Canadian industry.
Fair and open world trade will benefit everyone, and on those premises Iceland is participating in the Doha negotiations, which, unfortunately, could be making better progress. The fact that the Doha Round has progressed rather haltingly has made it even more important for countries to gain market access through preferential free trade agreements.
The relations between Canada and the EFTA countries are close and important from both an economic and a cultural perspective.
The free trade agreement between the two sides would provide an opportunity for enhanced cooperation between industries of the two sides.
For Canada, the agreement would be the first free trade agreement with European partners. Such a linkage with countries in Europe outside the EU could be a milestone towards the establishment of enhanced economic ties with European economies.
The conclusion of a free trade agreement with Canada would send a positive signal to EFTA's economic operators and make the Canadian market more attractive to them.
For the EFTA states, a free trade agreement with Canada would be the second such agreement with a NAFTA partner, after the one with Mexico, which has been in force since 2001. The conclusion of a free trade agreement with EFTA would in particular eliminate discrimination faced by Canadian exporters vis-à-vis current EFTA free trade partners such as, inter alia, the EU, Korea, and Mexico.
In addition to giving the parties preferential access to each other's markets, the agreement provides for cooperation between the two sides in the area of trade facilitation.
The Government of Iceland has now prepared and presented to the Icelandic Parliament the proposal for ratification of the EFTA-Canada free trade agreement. It is expected to receive universal support in Parliament and will be passed in April.
l will not elaborate further, but to conclude, l take the opportunity to welcome this free trade agreement as a significant milestone in advancing and forging the cordial relationships that have existed so long between Canada and the four EFTA countries.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.