ATLANTA — We’ll know in a few hours whether 12 countries, including Canada, have agreed to create the world’s largest trade zone.
Negotiators have extended talks in Atlanta yet again, with a series of all-night sessions pushing the meeting three days beyond its original schedule.
Sources say there are now tentative plans for all ministers to come together for a plenary session — likely this afternoon.
The chatter about a group meeting has fuelled the sense in Atlanta that an agreement is within reach to create the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would cover 40 per cent of the world economy. One insider says “it can only be a good sign.”
Differences are being bridged on one major irritant, with the U.S. and Australia still working this morning to resolve a dispute over exclusivity rights for next-generation biologics medicines.
The final question mark involves dairy, and Canada. New Zealand, which helped create the TPP project a decade ago, wants to sell more butter in North America — especially in the United States.
But New Zealand has said in the past that the U.S. wouldn’t budge on agriculture controls unless it also saw an opening from its northern neighbour.
Currently, 90 per cent of the Canadian dairy market is closed to foreign products. The system allows for stable incomes in farming communities, but limits options and drives up prices at the grocery store.
The Canadian government has insisted that it won’t blow up the supply-management system, and it faces political pressure not to do so from its opponents, provincial governments, and the dairy lobby.
But it has left open the possibility that it could allow an additional, if limited, share of foreign goods into Canadian grocery stores.
A deal would likely have a similar effect on the auto sector.
The Canadian government has not denied the hallway chatter in Atlanta about an agreement to allow more foreign parts to qualify for tariff-free status, which could mean slightly cheaper cars and more profitable Canadian parts companies — but which would, according to the auto-workers union, inevitably eliminate some good-paying jobs.
The state of play was summarized by New Zealand’s trade minister — who is easily an early candidate for most-memorable quote of these five-day meetings.
Under pressure to open up foreign access to his country’s dairy, he told one of his country’s newspapers that difficult compromises will have to be made.
He illustrated it with an unappetizing culinary metaphor.
“It’s got the smell of a situation we occasionally see which is that on the hardest core issues, there are some ugly compromises out there,” Tim Groser told New Zealand’s Weekend Herald.
“And when we say ugly, we mean ugly from each perspective — it doesn’t mean ‘I’ve got to swallow a dead rat and you’re swallowing foie gras.’ It means both of us are swallowing dead rats on three or four issues to get this deal across the line.”
Alexander Panetta, The Canadian Press