In The Media

Justin Trudeau’s first challenge — meeting G20 leaders in Turkey

by Ian Brodie

National Post
November 4, 2015

Yesterday, Justin Trudeau and his cabinet were officially sworn in. In only nine days, Canada’s new prime minister is due to leave for Turkey and the G20 summit in Antalya. This will prove a quick introduction to international relations.

His first stop in Turkey is a formal meeting with his hosts. Turkey is in a tough neighbourhood. Its leaders are juggling the threat of the Islamic State, renewed Russian adventurism, the normalization of relations with Iran and a massive influx of refugees from Syria’s civil war. The meeting gives Trudeau a chance to hear a first-hand account of the dangers and complexity of the Middle East. And the Turks will want to hear how Trudeau plans to take in 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of the year.

For Canadian reporters travelling to Turkey, the focus will be on the new prime minister’s first meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama. Will there be a brief “pull aside” chat during a break in the agenda? Or will there be a formal meeting? Will the two leaders issue a joint statement and, if so, what will be in it? A photo of the two will be front-page news the next day.

Unfortunately, Trudeau meets the U.S. president as a lame duck. Voters may expect Trudeau’s ideological harmony with Obama to help solve problems on the bilateral agenda. But just as George W. Bush’s lame-duck status made it hard for Stephen Harper to make much progress with him, Obama is in his last year in office. His “to-do” list is set and Republican control of Congress has forced that list to be short. Harper got an early win with Bush when he focused on settling the softwood lumber dispute. If Trudeau wants to make progress in Canada-U.S. relations, he will have to arrive in Turkey with a similarly tight focus.

Trudeau’s bigger challenge in Turkey is the Canada-EU trade deal. Harper signed the deal in 2013, but it has not yet been ratified. Getting it ratified will occupy the new government’s attention for at least the next year. This will be much easier if Trudeau can coax the European leaders at the G20 summit into a fulsome public endorsement of the deal. The biggest threat to ratification is in Germany. Legislators there have been making hostile noises about the Canada-EU deal, fearing it will be template for a future U.S.-EU free trade agreement. If Trudeau cannot secure an endorsement from Chancellor Angela Merkel in Turkey, he faces a longer, more difficult road to ratification.

Trudeau will meet other European leaders at the Turkey summit. Trudeau should press France’s François Hollande for his help on the trade deal. Hollande is a leftist but has had no hesitation about “whipping out” his fighter jets and special forces to do bloody work against terrorism in north Africa and the Middle East. The French would probably like Canada’s help in that effort. Will Hollande ask Trudeau to send the fighter jets he is pulling out of campaign against ISIL to north Africa in exchange for help with the Canada-EU deal? And will Trudeau get public support on the deal from the U.K.’s David Cameron? If not, will that endorsement come later in November at the Commonwealth Summit?

Finally, of course, Trudeau will meet Vladimir Putin at the G20. During the election, the audience at the leaders’ debate on foreign affairs giggled at the prospect of Trudeau face to face with Putin. Trudeau has to be tough in front of the man who carved up Ukraine and looks ready to carve up Syria. Harper famously told Putin to get out of Ukraine at their last summit encounter. That is one Harper message that Trudeau would do well to reinforce.

Ian Brodie teaches in the Law and Society Program of the University of Calgary. He is a member of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute’s Advisory Council. He served as chief of staff for former prime minister Stephen Harper from 2006-2008.

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