First of all, thank you very much indeed for the opportunity to be here.
As you correctly said at the beginning, we are here on a relatively short but very, very intensive program, which is representing the European Economic and Social Committee, of which the three of us are members. Jean-François is the director responsible for, among other things, external relations, but he also covers the key areas of agriculture, transport, and energy, which of course in many ways are central to some of the discussions we are having during our three-day visit here.
You asked me to be brief. I will try to be as brief as possible.
The European Economic and Social Committee is as old as the European Union itself, and I think therein lies an important message, because the founding fathers, which were only six countries, put in place a structure to ensure that civil society.... And can I say that it's the European definition of civil society? I understand that in Canada it can have some different implications, but civil society as we define it is three very distinct groups.
We have the employers group, of which José Isaias is a member and indeed a vice-president. We have the employees group, which, until I took over as president of external relations, I was a vice-president of. And we have the various interests group, which brings together quite a diverse grouping, but key players such as lead players in agriculture, consumers, and NGOs. Cultural groups and other groups come in there. But I wish to emphasize that we are talking here about predominantly mainstream European groups in terms of these three essential component parts representing now not the six countries that formed the EU, but the 27 countries that now form it.
We are a very large committee. It's done on a proportional basis between the three groups, equally divided, and the largest countries have more members than the smaller countries, but in total we number 344, so it's a very large grouping. Indeed, it's such a large grouping that we need to meet in Brussels when the European Parliament meets in Strasbourg, because we need to use their premises. Unlike here, we talk in 22 different languages, 21 of which are active in many meetings, so it's quite a diverse grouping.
The principal purpose of our visit here to Canada is that we were involved in an opinion on EU-Canada relations--that was heavily involved also--and commented on the trade agreement and the negotiations on the trade agreement. The unanimous view of our plenary, which carried the opinion, was favourable towards a trade agreement, and a substantial trade agreement, between the EU and Canada.
We also made specific recommendations on two components that we believe to be important, one being the need to address the question of sustainable development, which is now very much part of the EU agenda in trade agreements. The second, given our definition and how we value the role of civil society, is the hope that the EU-Canada agreement can replicate what has been the recent trend of finding a body that would be a joint body between the EU and Canada, made up of employers, of employee representatives, and the types of various interest groups that I have described, which could act as the body. It will not negotiate. It's not part of that process. It is part, then, of the ongoing evaluation and implementation process of the whole trade issue going forward.
I have tried to be as brief as I can. My colleagues will obviously wish to perhaps amplify if there are any questions, but in the interests of brevity, that is perhaps in a nutshell what we do.
The only other thing I would say is that in our external relations field, we now have 15 very formal structures, with bilateral arrangements with countries such as China, Brazil, and India, where we have our round tables. We're in the process of establishing a structure with Russia. Also, we are active on a regional basis in areas like Africa, the Caribbean Pacific, and Latin America, where we have specific forums that in many ways mirror the parliamentary structures in Europe. We become involved with civil society organizations, as I've defined them earlier, on this basis of mutual cooperation, exchange of views, and working on a common path together.
I will stop there in the hope that perhaps we can have a brief dialogue at what I know--for you and for us--is the end of a very long day. Thank you very much indeed.