National Newswatch

OTTAWA — The federal government says the legal review of the free-trade deal with the European Union has been completed — and the door is open for the pact to come into force early next year.

The agreement, known as CETA, was negotiated under the former Conservative government, but International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland said Monday that the Liberals were strongly supportive of the accord while in opposition.

"This is a gold-plated trade deal," Freeland told The Canadian Press in an interview.

"This is a true, high-level, 21st-century trade agreement, which is going to open up tremendous economic opportunity for Canadians."

An agreement in principle was reached on the comprehensive deal in October 2013. Canada and the 28-member EU negotiated the deal between 2009 and 2014.

Freeland said CETA will be signed later this year and she expects implementation early in 2017. Ratification will give Canada access to a market of 500 million people.

The legal-scrubbing process led to modifications in the deal, including changes Freeland said would strengthen the right of governments to regulate in their own national interests. She listed areas such as labour and the environment as examples.

She said the changes will help ensure that when a company does business outside its own borders, it will be treated in the same way as a local firm.

The adjustments also addressed sticking points identified by the Europeans, Freeland said.

"We were sympathetic to the European concerns and we absolutely welcome the modifications," Freeland said. 

The changes, she added, have also allowed for a permanent dispute-settlement tribunal and an appeal system.

Earlier this month, Canada's chief negotiator Steve Verhuel told a parliamentary committee that Ottawa was working with the EU to revise CETA's controversial investor protection provisions.

Verhuel said Ottawa was exploring whether improvements could make the dispute-resolution mechanism more favourable to Canada.

The Europeans first raised the matter after political opposition surfaced in Europe in 2014 over the chapter that deals with settling disputes between companies and governments, known as ISDS.

Some European politicians and anti-trade activists have expressed concerns that the ISDS chapter would give big companies the power to sue governments for creating regulations that hurt profits.

They have warned it could undermine the ability of countries to regulate environmental and health policies, among other things.

Tracey Ramsey, the NDP's trade critic, said in a statement Monday that the party has concerns environmental laws could still be challenged under the adjusted CETA rules.

Conservative MP Gerry Ritz, a member of the trade committee, said Monday that Verhuel also testified that the modifications to CETA's investor-state dispute settlement provisions would not harm Canada.

Ritz, who helped negotiate the deal as a Tory cabinet minister, said he was comfortable with the finalized version of the agreement.

He also urged the Liberals to quickly ratify another pact negotiated by the Conservatives: the contentious Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The trade committee is currently studying the TPP, a major Pacific Rim agreement that includes the United States and Japan.

Freeland indicated Monday that the trade committee's study on TPP could take up to nine months. After that, she has promised that only a majority vote in Parliament would seal the TPP's ratification.

On CETA, she said she didn't hear any opposition during consultations she held on it across the country.

Freeland said there's still time before next year's ratification to look closely at CETA to determine potential side effects for some sectors and how Ottawa can react to them.

The government, Freeland added, will now focus on implementation strategies for a number of industries, including the pharmaceutical sector.

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Andy Blatchford, The Canadian Press

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