National Column: Justin Trudeau explains Donald Trump to Europe

by Thomas Walkom

Justin Trudeau has discovered Europe. The prime minister had hoped to find there a counterweight to Canada’s economic dependence on the U.S. He found instead a continent anxious about American intentions and desperate to find someone who could interpret Donald Trump.

“It’s easier for the Canadians to speak to the Americans,” European Parliament President Antonio Tajani said during a joint press conference with Trudeau on Thursday in Strasbourg.

Indeed, explaining America has long been Canada’s role. The Europeans regard us, if they think about us at all, as the sane North Americans.

We may not be as interesting as Americans. But at least we can articulate the unfathomable enthusiasms that, from time to time, enslave them.

These days, Europe is trying to fathom the enthusiasms of Trump, America’s new president.

I’m not sure Trudeau wants to spend all of his time acting as interlocutor between Trump and the rest of the world. But for a while at least that may be his fate.

His trip to Strasbourg was timed to take advantage of last week’s decision by the European Parliament to ratify the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement between Canada and the European Union.

For Canada, a free-trade agreement with the EU is, in part, a strategy designed to lessen this country’s dependence on the U.S. market,

Its antecedents go back to the 1970s and the efforts of then prime minister Pierre Trudeau to find a so called third option (the first two being either the status quo or full economic integration with the U.S.).

The third option didn’t get very far in the 1970s. It is having only limited success today. As the Star reported last week, Conference Board of Canada chief economist Craig Alexander says that while CETA will ultimately boost exports to Europe, it won’t be a “game changer” for the Canadian economy.

The Canadian Meat Council, which represents federally inspected slaughterhouses, supports CETA. But spokesperson Ron Davidson told me Friday some “technical” issues – such as the EU’s refusal to accept Canadian beef that has been sprayed with antimicrobials – may remain unresolved for more than a year.

All of which is to say that, for a while at least, there may be less to Canada’s bold new trade deal with Europe than meets the eye.

Certainly, the Europeans aren’t that excited. The 408 to 254 vote for CETA in the European Parliament on Wednesday was solid but hardly overwhelming. To be fully implemented, the deal must still be ratified by all of the EU’s 28 member states.

In parts of Europe, significant opposition to the pact remains.

Presumably, however, the Europeans who turned out to welcome Trudeau last week in France and Germany didn’t want to hear him maunder on about CETA. They wanted to know about Trump.

What’s he like close up? How crazy is he? Does he really mean what he says?

Trudeau assured them that he does. “What I saw from the American president was a focus on getting things done for the people who supported him,” Trudeau said in Strasbourg.

So yes. Trump is serious. He may go back and forth on the need for NATO. But he means it when he says he’s sick of America picking up the bill for the alliance’s free riders.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Friday her country plans to meet NATO’s target for defence spending within a decade.

Trudeau, by this time in Berlin, hinted there may be another way – that Trump may tolerate financial pikers,
such as Canada and Germany, if they put their troops on the front lines of American-led military operations.

Throughout his whirlwind trip to France and Germany, Trudeau did all the appropriate things. He talked about climate change and the importance of trade. He embraced openness.

But his real role was to reassure Europeans that Trump is not insane, that he can be worked with.

“There will always be differences of opinion,” Trudeau said in Berlin. “But we can focus very closely on the things we have in common: a desire to help our middle classes.”

Thomas Walkom appears Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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