Trade Minister Charlene Johnson said that the new European trade agreement is the best thing to happen to the province’s fishery in a generation, and good news for Newfoundland and Labrador overall.
The announcement was so positive that the only bad thing opposition politicians had to say about it was that they weren’t given enough time to find something bad to say about it.
And as for the big winners in the deal — the province’s fishing industry — both union president Earle McCurdy and seafood producers executive director Derek Butler said unfettered access to Europe for seafood sales could totally change the industry for the better.
“We’ve operated for years at a tremendous disadvantage to, say, Norway, Iceland and other competitors in terms of getting access to that important market,” McCurdy said. “This, for the most part, removes those disadvantages and gives us a fighting chance.”
Butler pointed out that Europe eats more seafood than North America, so it makes for a big, rich market to sell into.
“I think it’s a great deal. I think, clearly, the province has punched well above its weight,” he said.
CETA, the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, has been in negotiations for four years, and it covers much more than fish. It’s expected to take another two years for the deal to be ratified, but when that happens, 98 per cent of EU tariffs will be reduced to zero.
Ninety-nine per cent of EU tariffs will be eliminated on non-agricultural goods, meaning virtually unrestricted access on everything from minerals to forestry products, chemicals and ships.
On seafood, imports into the EU will be 100 per cent duty free within seven years. As it stands now, some products face as high as 20 per cent tariffs, making it effectively impossible to sell some seafood into the EU.
“It is important to note that the two most important species for our provincial fishery — shrimp and crab — will be duty-free immediately on CETA coming into effect,” said Fisheries Minister Keith Hutchings.
Moreover, eliminating “end use requirements” on seafood means the province is able to brand and market products at a premium, to maximize economic benefit.
On the other side of the ledger, the province agreed to waive minimum processing requirements for all fish being shipped from Newfoundland and Labrador into the EU, but the consensus was that it was a relatively small concession to make.
“Quite frankly, Europe can’t compete with us anyway,” McCurdy said. “Their energy costs are higher. Their wage costs are as high or higher, and they’re not nearly as close to the raw material as we are.”
The minimum processing requirements are still in place, though, which will prevent fish from being shipped to China or the U.S. for processing.
Both the Liberals and the NDP were briefed on the broad brush strokes of the trade deal shortly before Friday morning’s news conference.
“On the surface it appears to be a great deal for Newfoundland and Labrador,” said Liberal MHA Tom Osborne. “We want to see greater details. We want to see all of the details, have an opportunity to debate in the House of Assembly before we give it our final stamp of approval.”
New Democrat MHA George Murphy said the government hasn’t given enough details yet for the party to determine if it’s a good deal.
“We’ve had about a 15-minute briefing on this,” he said. “It’s a little bit reprehensible that we’ve only had 15 minutes, pretty much, to deal with this.”
The one voice of discontent was Liberal leadership candidate Jim Bennett, who called it a ”complete sell-out of the small processing sector and small rural communities.”