EU trade chief sees rising anti-populism following Brexit and Trump

By Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press

The European Union’s trade chief says she appreciates having Justin Trudeau and his international brand on her side in the fight against the forces of anti-trade populism.

But these days, EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom is channelling another prominent Canadian – legendary singer Joni Mitchell – as she fights the protectionist and isolationist sentiments roiling the globe in the seismic wake of Britain deciding to leave the EU and the election of U.S. President Donald Trump.

“Events such as Brexit, such as the election of Trump, which makes uncertainty in the world, is also in a way bringing us a little bit more together and forcing us to sharpen our thoughts and what we have and what we might lose,” Malmstrom said Tuesday.

“You don’t know what you have until you risk losing it – I didn’t really get that right, but you know what I mean.”

Malmstrom – in Ottawa for meetings with Trade Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland – may have slightly mangled the reference to Mitchell’s famous 1970 hit “Big Yellow Taxi,” but her message was clear.

Malmstrom cited this week’s loss by anti-Islam populist Geert Wilders in the Netherlands election, along with a similar defeat in December for a right-wing anti-Islam candidate in Austria, as evidence of populism’s waning shine.

But one more big election is posing an existential threat to the EU: France’s upcoming presidential ballot, where far-right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen is vying for power.

“The arguments that Mrs. Le Pen and her party are promoting is not only anti-trade, it’s globalization, it’s anti-immigration, it’s anti most of the values that the majority of us uphold,” she told journalists at the EU’s Ottawa embassy.

“So that would be a real threat to the European Union as a whole.”

The EU’s popularity is rising in the polls, while demonstrations against populism have sprung up in Germany, and another big one is planned for Rome later this week, she said.

Having the example of the Canada-EU free trade deal also sends a strong message. Malmstrom said she expects Canada to ratify a landmark free trade agreement within weeks following the European Parliament’s ratification last month.

Though it will still need the approval of the EU’s 28 member countries and 10 regional governments, Malmstrom said the so-called provisional application — which kicks in when Canada ratifies – will mean 95 per cent of the deal will be in force immediately, and 98 per cent of tariffs will fall right away.

Malmstrom said she expects the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement to stand as an example of the merits of free trade for the protectionist Trump administration in Washington.

Europe is already seeing signs that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has the potential to have a positive effect on Trump after his successful visit to Washington last month, she added.

In Europe, the Trudeau Liberals are “seen as a fresh government with values. They have taken some very courageous decisions on trade, on opening up for Syrian refugees.”

On Tuesday, Trudeau called newly elected Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte to congratulate him on his party’s success, and to reaffirm “the rich and diverse bilateral relationship that exists between Canada and the Netherlands,” his office said in a statement.

They committed to an upcoming meeting in person and “to continue working closely together on a range of issues, including on the timely ratification and implementation of (CETA).”

Malmstrom said the Trump-Trudeau meeting served two purposes: preserving the “Canadian interests vis-a-vis the U.S., but also some of the global interests.”

Despite Trump’s anti-trade rhetoric, Malmstrom said there is still hope of a U.S.-EU free deal because Trump hasn’t formally declared the negotiations dead, unlike the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which he pulled the U.S. out of in January.

“It is not really on their radar at the moment.”

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