Speaker in the hot seat

A rocky summit road trip

BRUCE WALLACE June 6 1988
Speaker in the hot seat

A rocky summit road trip

BRUCE WALLACE June 6 1988

A rocky summit road trip

Brian Mulroney’s advisers are well aware of the political perils of international tours. “If the Prime Minister performs well, the reaction in Canada is neutral,” said an official in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). “But if he makes a gaffe, the public will crucify him.” That observation seemed to be partly borne out by Mulroney’s trip through five European capitals last week to meet national leaders in preparation for next month’s Toronto economic summit. Although the low-key mis-

sion achieved some successes, Mulroney was visibly upset after his own officials contradicted his contention that Canada does not subsidize agriculture to the same degree as the European Community (EC) does. Mulroney’s slip—and a subsequent angry encounter with reporters in Romecast a shadow over the trip. Still, there had been a bright spot in Paris, with the announcement that negotiations to resolve the fishing boundary dispute between Canada and France would resume in June.

Mulroney’s inaccurate statements about agricultural subsidies tarnished efforts by Tory strategists to solidify their boss’s credentials on international affairs. After a meeting with Italian Prime Minister Ciriaco De Mita in Rome later in the week, Mulroney became furious when reporters asked about his slip. “We will not allow Canadian farmers to be caught in the shootout between the Europeans and the United States,” he snapped. Pressed by reporters to discuss his earlier mistake, Mulroney angrily walked away.

As chairman and host of the June 19-to-June 21 summit, Mulroney visited the other participants to discuss the format and agenda for the Toronto meeting. At the end of his five days of meetings, Mulroney said that the summit would try to restore badly needed political momentum to the drive for global trade liberalization and to initia-

tives to ease Third World debt. But the European trip demonstrated how deeply divided European and North American leaders remain over the issue of farm subsidies.

The subsidies issue blew up when a senior EC official in Brussels declared that Canada was a major culprit in subsidizing farm incomes. Mulroney denied the charge, insisting that Canadian farm subsidies were not “in the same league” as those of the United States or Europe, neither “in proportion nor in amount.”

But later in Paris, a senior Canadian official, who may have been unaware of Mulroney’s earlier statement, told reporters during a briefing that Canadian subsidies account on average for 46 per cent of Canadian farmers’ incomes, only slightly below the EC’s average of 49 per cent. Although Canadian officials said that Ottawa has been forced to increase its help to farmers to keep pace with subsidies elsewhere, the admission damaged Mulroney’s attempt to portray Canada as an innocent victim of the subsidy war between the United States and the EC.

In order to stem any war of words over agriculture policy that might doom the Toronto summit to failure, Mulroney tried to use last week’s trip to strengthen his rapport with the other leaders. Members of Mulroney’s entourage said that his spirits were lifted by the warm welcome extended by West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. After a formal reception from a West German honor guard at the Cologne airport, Mulroney and his entourage travelled by helicopter to Schloss Gymnich, a 12th-century castle surrounded by a moat. In Bonn the next day, after private meetings with Kohl, a buoyant Mulroney played down Kohl’s hawkish attitude toward maintaining agricultural subsidies. Said a PMO official who accompanied Mulroney on the trip: “Kohl went out of his way to demonstrate friendship.”

But Mulroney’s relationship with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher—the most senior of the summiteers—is poor. “Maggie’s a problem for the boss,” admitted a PMO official. “She likes to run her own show.” Canadian officials in London were privately disappointed by the low-key reception given to Mulroney. Said Patrick MacAdam, minister-counsellor at the Canadian High Commission in London: “They treated us like a bunch of colonials.”

Still, the trip was not without accomplishments. In Paris, Mulroney and newly elected French Prime Minister Michel Rocard agreed to reopen negotiations in the feud over fishing rights in disputed waters off Newfoundland. But Mulroney was clearly distressed by his erroneous statements on the subsidies issue. The confusion was particularly damaging because it came at a time when western Canadian farmers are looking to Ottawa for leadership to survive in the face of subsidized international competition.

Although Canadian officials expressed confidence that progress could be made on the subsidy fight in Toronto, few European officials seemed as hopeful. Speaking to reporters in Rome, Mulroney admitted that the response to proposals for reducing subsidies was not “overwhelming because of the political realities.” He added, “There is political pain involved in this.” And as a result of his own misstatement, the issue cast a shadow over Mulroney’s efforts to make an impression on the world stage.

BRUCE WALLACE

in Rome