Jean Charest is in Europe, bending the ear of the French prime minister and attending the annual Davos assemblage of movers and shakers in government, business, finance and international governance. We hope he's having a nice time at taxpayers' expense, but we doubt that he will get far with his Quixotic effort to generate some kind of Canada-Europe free trade.
For a premier who's quick to complain about Ottawa colouring outside the constitutional lines, Charest is certainly willing to push right into federal jurisdiction with his own brand of global trade policy. Yes, some aspects of trade fall into provincial jurisdiction, but that's the second step of trade talks. At the general or conceptual level, this should be a federal issue.
Charest is, true enough, starting small, with a scheme to have France and Quebec mutually recognize professional credentials for engineers, doctors, nurses and so on. France, always willing to play footsie with Quebec, seems to be going along with this notion, which we suspect will be more than we'll be able to say of the professional orders here at home.
But that agreement, if it ever sees the light of day, will be tiny beside Charest's stated bigger goal: a broad free-trade agreement between Canada and the European Union, one that could boost Canada's trade figures by $2.4 billion a year, Charest claims.
This idea might sound familiar to those who remember Pierre Trudeau shambling around Europe in the early 1970s, pleading with anyone who would listen for some kind of "contractual link." As a result of that lonely crusade Canada did sign most-favoured-nation pacts with the Europeans (and with Japan) in 1976. But trade figures barely budged as a result. Like Canute with the tides, Trudeau found reality to be intractable: For better and for worse, Canada's natural trade pattern is with the U.S.
This newspaper is strongly in favour of freer trade, through to free trade, in almost all circumstances. The idea that Canada could have free trade with both the U.S. and with the European Union is a fine notion, but unfortunately a utopian one.
Michael Hart, one of Canada's negotiators of the North American Free Trade Agreement, understands these matters intimately, and he dismissed Charest's dream as "political" rather than serious. He told Canwest News Service that a transatlantic trade deal would require Canada to alter countless regulatory standards to comply with rigid European norms, and that such a change would impair Canada-U.S. trade. Charest laughed that off, saying it's time to get busy smoothing out the frictions that prevent wider freer trade.
At the abstract level this is a good, even a noble, policy orientation. But such a project could lead to no meaningful change in trade patterns for a decade, if ever - and even that assessment presumes that the Europeans would want to bother. Hart predicts that neither Brussels nor Ottawa will take any real interest in Charest's scheme. But none of this will stop Charest from pitching the notion to his fellow premiers, apparently.
On the whole we would rather see our premier invest his energy and political capital in a little more free trade right here in Canada. Barriers to internal trade in this country, lovingly defended by small-minded politicians in every province, cost Canadians untold millions in labour mobility and economic flexibility every year. Solve that, Premier, and only then book another trip to Europe.