In 1847, 38,000 starving Irish migrants, fleeing from the Great Potato Famine, arrived in Toronto, then a town with a population of only 22,000. The Torontonians welcomed them. This historic act of generosity and solidarity is commemorated at the Famine Memorial in Ireland Park, located in the heart of downtown Toronto, now a gleaming metropolis of 4 million people and the economic capital of Canada.
I took time out from my busy schedule to make a brief visit to the Famine memorial during this week's visit to Canada. It is a stark and evocative place. It is not just a memorial to a particular human tragedy at a particular time in history, but also a reminder of the universal importance of food security, as well as a tribute to solidarity.
I was in Canada for a series of meetings on the eve of the entry into force of our historic EU-Canada free trade deal, known as CETA. I brought with me a delegation of 60 companies from across the EU, with a combined turnover of twice the GDP of Sweden. However, at the heart of the delegation were small and medium sized food companies – SMEs stand to gain the most from the new market opportunities afforded by CETA.
Small beverage companies from Belgium and France, dairy producers from Poland and Greece – all stand to benefit from CETA. I was glad to be able to "open a few doors" for these producers so that when the CETA agreement comes into force, they can hit the ground running.
I also took in a day's visits in Ottawa, Canada's capital. I met with my good friend, Canadian Agriculture Minister Laurence MacAulay, who hails from Prince Edward Island and someone who is proud of his Scots-Irish heritage. I also met with members of the Canadian House of Commons Agriculture Committee. The MPs outlined to me the hopes and challenges of the Canadian farm sector, and indeed it highlighted even more so the commonalities of our agri systems, but also the complementarities. For example, Canadian maple syrup stands to benefit from CETA, as does European cheese. There are many such examples of win-wins for both sides.
On my global diplomatic offensives for agri-food trade, I always fit in a visit to a local supermarket.
I would challenge every populist, doom-filled, anti-trade politician in Europe to visit a supermarket the next time they take a trip outside of Europe. What they would see is European quality produce, featuring prominently on the shop shelves of the global consumer – our trade deals in action. What they would also detect is a growing demand for this European quality. Our fine wines, spirits and beers, our cheese, our butter, our meat products, our fruit and vegetables, our confectionary, and so much more. What all of this means is jobs and wealth for rural areas of Europe. Some European countries, such as France, export the vast majority of what they produce. Where would all of this product go if a new iron curtain of protectionism was to fall across Europe? What would happen to all the farmers who produce this product? Many would go out of business without this export market, and rural Europe would fall quickly to ruin. The stakes are that high.
In sum, I return from Canada with a renewed sense of urgency to keep up our drive for European agri-food exports. We are now exporting €131bn of produce. This is not just a figure - it is a huge amount of wealth being transferred to rural areas across Europe, in reward for the production of high quality, sustainable produce.
It is incumbent on all political representatives to champion this cause, for it is vital for the future sustainability of rural areas across our continent.