OTTAWA - The European Union's top diplomat in Ottawa said Wednesday the bloc's long-sought free-trade deal with Canada might not be completed until next year.
Ambassador Matthias Brinkmann softened his recent criticism of Canada over the stalled talks, saying the delayed deal could prove better for Canada in the long run.
Brinkmann, who leaves Canada this month after a four-year posting, painted a rosy picture of the four-year-old talks, saying it is down to "fine tuning in the final stretch."
He predicted negotiations might not be complete until 2014, but it would be worth the wait, especially for Canadian consumers.
"This agreement will maybe be signed this year or next year, and then you have (a) ratification period," he said in a question-and-answer session for journalists at the EU mission in Ottawa.
Canada's Trade Minister Ed Fast said last week he remains "absolutely confident" the deal will be done, but did not offer a time frame.
The Harper government faces growing political pressure over the stalled talks after bold predictions last year of a deal by the end of 2012.
A trade pact with Europe ahead of the 2015 federal election would be a political win for the government, its first comprehensive deal with an advanced market.
Brinkmann's upbeat tone marks a shift from his recent suggestion that Canada's stalling prevented the deal from coming together in February. He had said that EU was ready to sign then but that it "takes two to tango."
Fast shot back that Canada wasn't prepared to sign a deal that was not in its interest.
On Wednesday, Brinkmann stressed the deal will ultimately be a win-win, and that unresolved issues in agriculture, intellectual property, financial services and provincial procurement were closer to agreement than claimed by some insiders.
He suggested Canada had more to gain.
"The potential is so huge for Canada, much more than for us," Brinkmann said, noting the access to Europe's 500 million consumers. "The European Union has rich consumers, they have money to spend."
The agreement will have the prior approval of the EU's 28 members to prevent one of them from vetoing the deal after it is signed, he said.
"That's not a worry. In the end, they will all be on board or there will be no deal."
Ireland and France loom as potential threats to a negotiated pact because they want to protect their farmers from increased Canadian competition.
Brinkmann confirmed that EU and Canadian negotiators were meeting face-to-face this week, but wouldn't say where.
Fast's spokesman Rudy Husny said negotiators met in Ottawa on Tuesday and Wednesday.
"Canada has made robust offers in good faith that address the EU's key interests. Canadians expect to be provided the same by the EU and we continue to make this clear to our EU counterparts," Husny said in an email.
Brinkmann also played down the potential negative effect on Canada from the opening of the parallel trade negotiations between the U.S. and Europe last week in Washington.
Though the Europeans sent a delegation of 60 to Washington, he said, Ottawa shouldn't be worried.
"It is a big thing, but with Canada we have done the bulk of the work. So it's very little left," said Brinkmann.
"Our chief negotiator, he's continuing with Canada."
A source close to the Canada-EU negotiations said the talks were now at "an advanced stage" and "meetings between negotiators only involved a handful of people."