Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman, and honourable members of the committee. I'm very pleased to be here to talk about this important issue.
If I had to summarize my observation, number one, I'd say the two fields that I've been most involved in--which are, first, microfinance or financial services for the poor, and second, technology, especially information technology for poverty alleviation and development—are both classic examples of the private sector playing a role in international development alongside the public sector. They can also be a platform or a partner for other private sector actors getting involved in the future, and I'll say a little bit about that in a minute.
The second thing is this: how the private sector can interface with the public sector and international development efforts really defies easy categorization along the lines of “it should be this way” or “it should be that way”. Every sector, every country, and every moment in time is different, and those relationships, we think, should be recalibrated over time as times and sectors change. I won't be giving you any major pronouncements on what this should look like, because it's very context-specific.
Microfinance is a very classic example of the private sector working with a social purpose. I grew up seeing microfinance evolve in Bangladesh, and I must say that Canada played a very important role in the growth of microfinance. Grameen Bank, BRAC, and others in Bangladesh, without CIDA's support, might have turned out very differently in terms of the maturity and the strength of the microfinance sector there. Bangladesh is a very different country from what it was when I first landed there in late 1988. It's much more vibrant in both the private sector and in the overall infrastructure of the country, and it's much less poor. Anyone who's looked at it, including Jeffrey Sachs at Columbia University, can see that microfinance was probably one of the top two or three reasons that the country advanced so much in the past 25 years.
In fact, we did a literature survey of all the impact studies of microfinance, called Measuring the Impact of Microfinance, and one of the many studies said that over a three-year period about ten years ago, the districts in Bangladesh where microfinance was expanding rapidly experienced poverty reduction rates at triple that of the districts where it was expanding very slowly, so I think it's a big part of the poverty reduction experience in Bangladesh.
Looking forward, I think that microfinance, which now reaches more than 150 million of the world's poor families, can be a strong partner to other private sector actors wanting to get involved in international development, and I'll talk about that in a moment.
We think of microfinance as being a platform, a partner, a channel to market for other interventions. One example is solar panels. It's not a new technology, but it's very rare for it to actually reach, in a usable form, the poor of a country so that they can afford it and go off the grid and have affordable, clean electricity, but a sister organization of Grameen Bank, called Grameen Shakti, which means “rural energy”, formed a company from very small beginnings and is now profitable, selling to people across rural Bangladesh a thousand solar home systems every single day now, and doing it profitably.
The technology has existed all along, but the infrastructure to finance the poor to borrow for it, to repay it, to use it, to understand the opportunity of solar energy, was only possible because the microfinance infrastructure was already there. Microfinance, which is basically bringing banking services on a businesslike basis to the poor, makes possible the entry of many other people producing products--whether health care, educational, or energy products--and makes it possible for the poor to afford them and to understand why this could benefit them.
Certainly there are regulatory issues that microfinance is facing in certain countries, Bangladesh and India in particular, and it's ironic that certain regulatory agencies and politicians have chosen to accuse microfinance of being exploitative of the poor by charging interest when those two countries are two of the countries with the lowest microfinance interest rates in the world.
Politics sometimes is not a little out of step with reality, everywhere except, I guess, in Canada.
I will move on to information services. We think that not only do the poor not have access to the financial services they need, but they also do not have access to the information they need or the ability to communicate with others, such as family members, business partners, and overseas relatives.
On the microfinance success story, we observed something happening right when I was setting up Grameen Foundation 15 years ago. Grameen Bank joined with Telenor, a Norwegian telecommunications company, to set up a phone company in Bangladesh, which was later named Grameenphone. It's a purely commercial, private sector, for-profit company, but it's set up with a sister organization with a social purpose to set up what became 300,000 Grameen Bank clients with cell phones to be a human pay phone, a pay phone for their village. It was a very unique example of leveraging the infrastructure of microfinance in a brand, bringing a new technology, which was being privatized, and doing it in a way that could be commercially successful but that could set up hundreds of thousands of women in business. It was a smashing success. The company became the largest company in Bangladesh, and the effort to set up the women in the pay phones was highly profitable for them.
Grameen Foundation, which I started, took that model to Uganda, joined with MTN, a private sector telecommunications provider. It is Africa's largest mobile network operator, in fact. We set it up in Uganda. We made some mistakes and got a little bit of a rough start, but ultimately we set up a profitable company that set up 80,000 Ugandans, mostly women, as pay phone operators. They became familiar with being the information and communications technology hub of their village.
Then that business started to come down. This is the way of the business in the private sector: what it hot one year is a dying business the next year. We decided to use that learning and that infrastructure to set up these women not just simply to use the phone to make phone calls, but to actually download information about best practices in agriculture, health, and commerce. We transformed what we called village phone operators to community knowledge workers. We now have 1,000.
We are focused now on agriculture in Uganda. We're looking to spread this to other geographies such as Colombia, Indonesia, Tanzania, perhaps, and other places, where a peer farmer--1,000 of them are now operating--does two things. Through the phone and accessing a database on agricultural best practices, they can get just-in-time information about market prices, about how to deal with a disease, about what fertilizer to use, and get it right to the farmer when he or she needs it. It picks up where the agricultural extension agent leaves off, which is often maybe one visit a year, by using the power of the phone and the database behind it.
Secondly, it aggregates information about farmers, such as what they are producing, what they need, what they want to buy, what they want to sell, and when. I've literally seen one of these peer farmers taking a survey on their phone, uploading it just when they finish with GPS coordinates about where they are standing. That information is then being mined by companies in Kampala, where literally a brewery wants to know where they can buy barley to make beer. There are many other such examples.
One of the reasons that companies don't work with the poor and don't contribute more to international development is they don't have real-time information about subsistence farmers or poor market women—what they need, what they want, what they want to buy, and what they want to sell. The mobile phone, put in the hands of people out on the field, poor people themselves, can be a way of capturing and aggregating that information that can remove a lot of the friction from the process between the private sector and the poor and allow partnering in ways that mutually benefit each other.
The final word I'll say is this. My chairman of the board, who runs a major company in Silicon Valley and once worked at a very senior post in Microsoft, has said that in philanthropy or in international development, the easiest person to deceive is yourself.
It's very easy to be patting yourself on the back and saying you've got a private sector solution—it's reducing poverty or claiming some other thing—but there should be an accountability mechanism to figure out if you're really doing that.
Grameen Foundation and Fonkoze, which I'm also involved in, have been using an accountability tool called the progress out of poverty index. It's a very simple survey tool that can show trends about whether people are just treading water or are actually getting out of poverty.
Again, if that's going to be our goal through private sector or public sector solutions, it needs to be based not on anecdote, not on hope, not on intuition, but on hard data. There are many, many tools coming onto the market, including ours, that can contribute to that end.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
I would like to thank you for inviting us to appear before you today to talk about the role of the private sector.
My presentation is going to be in French. I am a francophone from Montreal. I grew up in Montreal and I studied at HEC Montréal. It is a great honour for me to be here today and to be able to share our experience in Haiti with you.
I have submitted documents in both French and English. I have a few others but they are in English only. I have Fonkoze's annual report and social performance report.
The social performance report and the annual report are here, and I also have some small flyers about Zafèn, which that I will speak about a bit later.
I was told that I had to do both at the same time, and that is what I am going to try to do. There are some pictures missing, but that is not a big deal.
First of all, Fonkoze is a microfinance institution in Haiti that has been around for over 16 years. We have more than 270,000 savers and more than 60,000 credit clients. The founding principle on which we operate is that women are the backbone of the economy. You can’t just give them a loan; you also have to support them in their fight against poverty. If you just give them money, it is not going to work.
We are also talking about the fact that all Haitians must participate in the Haitian economy. So, in a commune or in a communal section, we make sure that everyone participates, even those who are very poor and who are not necessarily able to do business. We include them in the process. We will talk about this later.
Democracy cannot survive in Haiti without an economic democracy. That is quite important. Father Joseph, the founder of Fonkoze, has always said that there will be no democracy in Haiti if people do not have access to finance, or if people cannot have savings and access to insurance or credit to run their business. It may seem trivial, but those are the facts. The poor cannot think about voting and about being involved in politics if they don't have access to finance first.
The final pillar is the Haitian diaspora and that is what I am most involved in at Fonkoze. The general feeling is that there will be no opportunities in Haiti as long as the diaspora—Haitians living abroad or migrants who left the country—does not get involved in the Haitian economy as well. So we support their efforts. We know they send $1.8 billion annually in remittances.
How can we make those money transfers smoother? Most transfers are definitely for consumption. But some of those transfers are for investments. Yet investments are not always successful. Problems may crop up. We are trying to find ways to support people and to make those investments possible so that they are not lost.
I have already provided an outline. We have 46 branches across the country with over 900 employees, and 99% of our clients are women. We have over 60,000 credit clients, representing a $16 million credit portfolio. We have 270,000 savers; that’s a $26 million portfolio in savings from the people who save with us. Last year, we had $96 million in remittances from the diaspora. And we have about $34 million in assets at Fonkoze.
Essentially, Fonkoze's mission is to eliminate poverty. You can see all the branches we have. I mentioned that there were 46 branches; we got the country covered. It is very important to keep that whole territory in mind. When you talk about partnerships with the private sector and when my colleague talks about an existing microfinance infrastructure, it is an infrastructure that can make marketing possible and that can promote involvement in health, for example, or other involvements. The infrastructure is there and, since all the branches have computers and satellites, they can communicate with each other. This is quite a significant infrastructure. Once again, with 900 employees, we are not a small organization.
You see a bunch of little dots. We have a number of credit centres; we have 1,750 centres across the country. Groups of women get together to receive credit, but also to receive financial and health-related training. The training does not necessarily have to be about financial matters. It can be about something else.
All those centres are active. They have meetings every week or every two weeks. Here is quite an interesting image to help you see that our credit officers cross rivers and climb mountains. That is why I wanted to show you this picture. In some cases, they risk their lives to reach our clients. Here is an example of a group.
As I was telling you, microfinance is not just microcredit. It also entails microsavings, microinsurance, microcapital, money transfers, as well as any non-financial services. We are talking about financial literacy and leadership training to ensure that people can stand up to talk about their problems and seek solutions. Those are some of the issues that the groups deal with.
Here is what we call the “Staircase out of Poverty”, which includes all the products and services provided by Fonkoze to alleviate poverty. I will not go into too much detail, given the time I have, but we offer a number of products to clients, depending on where they are at. Some are very poor and are not able to run a business. They are really too far down the poverty ladder. What they need first is an 18-month program, involving a case manager. They meet with the case manager every week to talk business. They learn to read and write or to at least sign their names. We also do asset transfers. We give them young goats that are part of what we call the livestock. We show them how to start a small business, but we cannot give them credit right away. We have to reintegrate them first. This is called the Chemen Lavi Miyò program or the Road to a Better Life. It is in purple at the bottom.
Once they complete the program, they usually have more stability. Their homes are more stable. The children go to school and eat fairly regularly. They are able to cope with everyday problems. This stability enables them to either be part of a credit process or to work perhaps, which is quite significant. We realized that by limiting ourselves to solidarity-group credit, so by working with groups, we were leaving many people behind who could not access this type of credit or, if they had access, they were not able to succeed.
Once the solidarity group stage is complete, and they have gone through all the processes, the people can access personal credit in the official sector. That is a milestone. Actually, nothing has been official yet. It is at this stage that it becomes official. People have access to various types of credit. This is when additional guarantees come into play. We can offer them various products. It is quite an integrated approach through which we really target people based on where they are in society and on their ability to have access to finance.
In terms of our promise, we measure it in the social performance impact report that we are committed to produce each year. We check if things are working or not, but we promise our people that they will have food daily, that their children will go to school, that they will learn to write regardless of their age—for example, this lady was quite old, but she learned to read and write—and that they will have tin roofs, cement floors and latrines, which is quite something. They will be able to accumulate assets. They will also be able to face the future with more confidence. Being part of a network enables them to take care of some problems without waiting for international aid. As I said, we also measure the social impact.
As for the people in Canada with whom we do business the most, I am not sure if you have heard of ROCAHD or the Regroupement des organismes canado-haïtiens pour le développement. It has been around for over 20 years. When Father Joseph had the idea of founding a microfinance institution, the people from ROCAHD, this Haitian association in Canada, were the first ones to believe in Fonkoze. That is where Fonkoze got its first loan, a loan of $12,000.
I found that approach very interesting, especially since, in looking at the investments of Haitians abroad, we are now wondering how to improve the flow. So it is a good thing that they had the vision that this could work.
Since 2010, the KANPE foundation, with Arcade Fire, have been raising funds and have been working with us specifically in a village called Bay Tourib, in the Central Plateau, where we have set up the CLM program or Chemen Lavi Miyò, which targets the poorest of the poor, and Partners in Health.
Partners in Health, co-founded by Paul Farmer.
In terms of the general public, Zafèn is a program for small and medium enterprises. It is a bit like Kiva, but really aimed at small and medium enterprises. You can take a look online and see a list of businesses and the types of loans they are looking for. You can set up the loan online.
Canada is the second most active country for us. The number of participating Canadian taxpayers is growing by the day. It is always surprising to see the number of visits we get.
In terms of interest for Canada, I think we need to talk about microinsurance. I won't go too far into that, but I would just like to say that this component might need to be addressed. If your committee is interested, we could send people to talk about microinsurance. Développement international Desjardins (DID) is on the market looking for agricultural microinsurance. We have microinsurance for disasters.
We also have life insurance. The insurance model works if we have enough volume. For example, DID started to develop its own insurance. So we would have competition. People would certainly benefit from it, but there would be more profit if we could agree on only one insurance model for the same population. So I would like to throw this idea out there to look into microinsurance. We have actually developed quite an attractive model. There are even countries other than Haiti that are studying this model and that would like to use it.
To conclude as far as Zafèn is concerned, we have an investment fund that might be of interest to you if you are looking to support small and medium enterprises. I am not talking about micro-enterprises. I am talking about businesses that create jobs, more than four or five jobs, and that give back to the community. That is what we are looking at.
It is equally interesting to see that the diaspora is also suggesting businesses in which to invest. We can help the ones that are viable through Zafèn. So that approach might be a way to support the Haitian diaspora in Canada.
Finally, there is always the vulnerable segment. When we talk about development on a large scale, we cannot forget about those most in need, the poorest of the poor. The Chemen Lavi Miyò program has demonstrated results. I have some statistics that I can share with you if you have any questions. This is something that can be done very easily. I would also like to invite DID to consider a partnership.
So there you go. Thank you.
I'd be happy to, and thank you for the question.
I think this issue of over-indebtedness that you mentioned is an important one. One of the emerging best practices at the industry level is to bring in credit bureaus so that if a lender is lending to someone who is indebted to others, they can understand those levels and have certain self-regulatory guidelines.
That said, it isn't a cure-all. There has been a credit bureau in Peru since the late nineties, and yet there are pockets of over-indebtedness there. It's not the one solution.
Also, I think that these discussions of suicides by borrowers in India have been wildly exaggerated. In fact, the only serious studies of that have actually shown that the suicide rate—which is a tragedy if it happens even once—among microfinance clients seems to be much lower than among the general rural population in India. Also, for those who have suffered this tragedy, it is caused by many factors, not simply microfinance. It has become an important issue, but also one that has not always been correctly characterized based on hard data.
In relation to our tool, the progress out of poverty index that you mentioned, we felt it was very important to quantify the results of anything that is trying to attack poverty, because it's so easy to just talk about process and not about outcomes and results.
We joined with the Ford Foundation and an arm of the World Bank called CGAP, which I know Fonkoze has also worked with, to develop a very simple tool, a 10-question survey that's customized for every country based on census data. The census data are often hundreds of questions; we have statisticians who look at which of those questions are most highly correlated to someone's poverty level, and then which of them are easily observable in a household, so that the survey can be filled out accurately in 10 minutes or less. We've done that now for 46 countries in the world.
This tool is being used by both microfinance organizations and by many others attempting to deal with poverty reduction. They use it on intake when you take your first loan, and then this survey is filled out every year when you take a new loan. Then there are random audits of them so that the field force isn't changing the numbers to make things look better. It gives one a sense of the broad trends such as, first of all, if you are dealing with the hard-core poor to begin with, which is a question, and then whether they, on balance, are making progress towards and ultimately above the poverty line.
We've now seen more than 150 of the world's leading microfinance organizations take up this tool, and we're developing some online tools to help them get business intelligence, because this isn't about pointing the finger to say that you're not doing a good job—though there is some of that—but more to figure out, even within an organization, if you're doing a very effective poverty reduction job in one part of the country and less so in another. If so, why is that?
This type of transparency and insight into poverty reduction success is fairly new, but it's very easy and cost-effective to do through this tool and through some similar ones that are on the market.
We're big believers in data telling us what's happening, but stories can give people a sense of real possibilities for making progress on poverty, so I'm happy to share those.
When I was in Bangladesh, I worked for Grameen and my wife worked for BRAC, so we were considered a mixed marriage. I have a strong admiration for both organizations.
While writing a book called Small Loans, Big Dreams, I lived for the better part of two years in one village in Bangladesh. Not all the borrowers were equally successful, but one of them was a Hindu family that traditionally made sweets out of milk. Cottage cheese is the raw material for Indian sweets, as we see even in Indian restaurants here, but because they lacked capital, they had gotten out of that business and they were just labouring for hire in the fields for people who had land.
They got a loan that started with $70 and grew over time. They had had to sell their cows because of some crisis or natural disaster, but they started buying milk on the market, selling cottage cheese, making sweets, and selling the sweets in the market. Their big break was getting a contract with a shop in Dacca, which is about 90 kilometres away, to sell cottage cheese on a daily basis, usually one or two duffel bags of it. It was around 80 pounds, if I'm not mistaken, so they became a thriving business. They sold sweets locally and they sold the raw material for sweets to the capital city.
To show you the enterprising nature of the poor, I'll tell you about a 14-day transit strike in 1996. The opposition stopped all motorized transport, and except for 10 miles on bike, this family would send their cottage cheese on a public bus. I was trapped in the capital. When I came back after the strike broke, I asked what happened—whether they lost the contract, how they managed.
As if it was the strangest question, they said every day they'd have to finish work a little earlier and put those 80-pound bags of cottage cheese across their bikes. They would just bike all 90 kilometres into the capital, deliver the cheese, and then bike back the next morning to pick it up and do it all again.
This is a family in which the males had been reduced to wage-labouring for under $1 a day, but with a little capital to recover a skill that had almost been lost, they were a thriving business, creating business linkages for other dairy farmers in the area.
As you can see, the notion of the poor as superstitious, lazy folk sitting around waiting for people to do things for them doesn't stand up in this example.
I've been struggling with that for a while now, because it is important that we partner on the ground. At the end of the day, it's not about being Desjardins or being Fonkoze; it's about the Haitian people and giving them access to finance.
One of the things I think it is very important to look into is microinsurance. As financial institutions, we have to forget that we are different entities and look at the market. It's a market of maybe eight or nine million people. That's it. It's not Bangladesh. We don't have that volume, so we have to discuss, as a market, whether we want to insure for catastrophe, for life, and for health. We have to put it on the table and decide how we're going to do this and how we're going to make it a good price for the Haitian people. That's one.
Second is financial access. I think for SMEs, the petites/moyennes entreprises, it is very important to look not only at giving access to finance but at giving business support, and proper business support, by sector.
For example, we're all working in agriculture. Zafèn is receiving thousands of requests on agriculture. We need to look at business support and maybe have a business support bureau or replicate the BDC. I don't know. Something similar to that could be interesting for our SMEs in Haiti. That's something we can work on jointly to look at how we can support SMEs, small growing businesses, and social projects as a whole sector, in agriculture and in other sectors.
The other thing is, again, as I said, the ultra-poor. Here in Canada, we have social security for our ultra-poor and for people who cannot work. How can we integrate that in our activities until the government picks it up? We have to think of the social impact. I think this is something we can work on together.
In those three spheres, I think we can find a way to collaborate. There are probably others, but that's where I am.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman, vice-chairs, and distinguished members of the committee.
Thank you for your invitation today to brief you on the Canada-EU strategic partnership agreement.
I'm pleased to report that discussions on the strategic partnership agreement are advancing well, and that we expect to conclude the agreement later this year.
Let me give you a bit of background.
Canada-EU cooperation has a long and rich history. Canada is one of the European Union's oldest and closest partners. In fact, we were the first country to sign a formal agreement with the EU when we signed a treaty on the peaceful uses of atomic energy in 1959.
Our current high-level engagement is based upon the Canada-European Communities framework agreement for commercial and economic cooperation, which was signed in 1976. This agreement was intended to deepen the Canada-EU commercial relationship and to forge closer economic ties. This agreement was also the first of its kind between what was then the European Economic Community and an industrialized third country. However, it almost singularly focused on economic cooperation.
However, as you can imagine, much has changed in both the EU and in Canada over the past 35 years. The EU has expanded from 9 to 27 member states, and in 2010, with the coming into force of the Lisbon Treaty, the EU created new legal and organizational structures. This included the creation of the European External Action Service, which for all intents and purposes now serves as the foreign ministry for the European Union and has the authority to negotiate and sign legally binding agreements on behalf of the EU and its member states.
We have completed more than 30 agreements with the EU on a range of issues from air transport and fisheries to higher education and youth, and we're currently negotiating five more, including a comprehensive economic and trade agreement.
To manage our ever-expanding relationships with the EU, we hold regular leaders' summits and foreign ministers' meetings, as well as an annual joint cooperation committee meeting at the senior officials' level that reviews the entirety of our bilateral activities. During the year we also hold formal and informal regional and thematic foreign policy consultations among senior officials on everything from disarmament and human rights to the situation in the Middle East.
In recognition of these many changes and the potential for further enhancing Canadian and EU political cooperation, the EU proposed that we negotiate a political framework agreement that would facilitate existing and future areas for cooperation. Canada agreed, and I began my work as chief negotiator in September 2011.
In recognition of the longstanding and strategic nature of cooperation between Canada and the EU, the EU proposed, and we accepted, to name our framework the “Canada-EU strategic partnership agreement”. We have now concluded three formal rounds of negotiations and three discussions by video conference, and we hope to complete our negotiations in 2012.
The strategic partnership agreement is based on our shared values and principles of international peace and security, democracy, human rights and the rule of law and sustainable development; it identifies areas and mechanisms to strengthen our dialogue, cooperation and coordination in promoting these common objectives.
Through consultations with federal departments, we identified a number of potential benefits of a strategic partnership agreement. Among these were enhanced consultations and coordination in multilateral fora such as the UN, new dialogues in areas such as development cooperation, as well as strengthening the role of the joint cooperation committee to bring greater breadth and coherence to our engagement.
As the strategic partnership agreement is intended to provide the foundation for Canada-EU political cooperation well into the future, we have sought to craft balanced language that is forward-looking and enabling. In doing so, we have been mindful of the need to avoid areas of specific provincial or territorial jurisdiction and areas that could overlap with other existing agreements. To this end, I have held regular teleconference consultations with provincial and territorial representatives and have shared proposed language in cases where it might touch upon their areas of responsibility. They've been most cooperative and quite engaged.
We've divided the text into five broad sections or titles. The first is called the “basis for cooperation”, which outlines the general principles, the values, and the objectives underlying our cooperation in the next four areas, which are human rights, fundamental freedoms, democracy, and the rule of law; international peace and security and effective multilateralism; economic and sustainable development; and finally, justice, freedom, and security.
Each of these titles contain articles that describe the mechanisms we will employ to further strengthen our dialogue and coordination in promoting our shared values, including on human rights, non-proliferation, macroeconomic stability, sustainable development, environmental protection, and combatting terrorism and organized crime. We also highlight the importance of our extensive people-to-people linkages, including the value of regular exchanges of delegations among our respective parliamentarians.
The focus and objective of this agreement is to identify ways that we can share ideas and exchange best practices so that we can learn from each other and more effectively promote our shared values with other countries and regions of the world. We are also conscious of the need to avoid new expenditures, and instead seek to increase the effectiveness of our efforts through greater coherence and coordination.
Given the high degree of like-mindedness on most foreign policy issues, we have been able to reach agreement, in principle, on approximately 90% of the text during the last five months in negotiations. There are a few remaining areas to be agreed on, and we expect to resolve these through video conferences over the next few months.
One of these areas is the dispute settlement section. Canada has proposed text that emphasizes the need for an evidence-based approach based on dialogue and expert advice to resolve any differences in a timely and constructive manner.
The EU is currently studying Canada's proposal, and we expect to receive their reply within the next few weeks. Our next round will likely take place in March, by video conference, and I expect to make significant progress toward the goal of concluding in 2012.
Once we have reached an agreement on the text, and following the necessary approvals by cabinet, the strategic partnership agreement will be tabled in the House of Commons for 21 sitting days, in accordance with Canada's policy on the tabling of treaties in Parliament. During this period, members of Parliament can initiate a debate or may also request a vote on a motion regarding the agreement. To ensure that parliaments in Canada and Europe are kept up to date on the negotiations, we have provided briefings to members of the Canada-Europe Parliamentary Association and the European Parliament's delegation for relations with Canada.
With your support we look forward to the conclusion of an agreement in 2012 that will give both vision and voice to the continued growth and evolution in the Canada-EU relationship and further solidify our ties so that we can work together to address the most pressing foreign policy challenges that face us now and well into the future.
Thank you for your attention. I am ready to answer your questions.
I've brought with me a most esteemed colleague, John Kur. He is the real expert on European affairs, so if you have questions on very detailed matters, I will swiftly turn to him.
Thank you very much for that excellent question. It's one that we've had to grapple with following the adoption in Europe of the Lisbon Treaty, because the treaty created a number of new institutions in the European Union and also various roles for new players within the EU structures.
From a Canadian perspective, we have to remain engaged with both Brussels and the EU leaders and institutions as well as with, essentially, every member state of the 27 as and when required. We've seen this necessity on various different issues. If the European Union is moving forward on an issue under its own competence, our colleagues from our embassy in Brussels, who are accredited to the European Union, will take the lead on ensuring that Canada's position on a particular file is well understood and well articulated at the EU level, and by coordinating both with our headquarters and with our other colleagues stationed in EU member states, they will ensure that Canada's position is also properly articulated to the member states. We found that you can't approach it from one way or the other, but that you must approach it as both a member state and at an institutional level.
Canada was actually one of the first countries to have a foreign EU summit with EU leaders after the Lisbon Treaty. That was the first opportunity, in May of 2010 in Brussels, for the Prime Minister to sit down with both the president of the European Commission, Mr. Barroso, and the new president of the European Council, Mr. Van Rompuy, to begin relationship-building at that stage. It was also an opportunity, from the vantage point of parliamentarians, to meet for the first time with the president of the European Parliament and to begin engaging in dialogue at that level.
We continue that at the officials level, of course, and as Alex has mentioned, the EU itself now has its new External Action Service, which is their newly formed foreign ministry, and the head of that service is Lady Ashton. That is the main EU interlocutor for Canada's Minister of Foreign Affairs, but that in no way negates the need for our minister to be in very close contact with member state ministers on an issue-by-issue basis.
I'll happily offer some comments on both points.
With respect to the seal hunt, I think the Canadian position internationally on this particular issue is well known. It's also well understood, from a Canadian vantage point, that the ban on seal products by the European Union is inconsistent with their international trade obligations. I'm sure this is an issue that has been discussed in the international trade committee on a few occasions.
Of course, as I'm sure you are aware, Canada has launched a WTO challenge to that effect, which is currently ongoing. I think this is a good example, as Alex has mentioned, of an issue on which Canada is of course not hesitant to defend its interests and to make its case in front of, in this case, the World Trade Organization. I think it's a very good example of an issue on which, once we have agreements such as the strategic partnership agreement, there will be an opportunity for early dialogue.
You mentioned the oil sands. That's another example of an issue that we're currently dealing with, using the appropriate channels between Canada and the EU to ensure that the implementing measures that the EU may put in place to implement its fuel quality directive do not discriminate against Canadian oil sands.
Our approach has been very scientifically based. It has been coordinated very closely with Natural Resources Canada, which has the technical and scientific expertise to be able to ensure that Canada's position is very well understood within the EU.
Actually, I'll get back to the previous question on how one articulates a position. This is a perfect example of how Canada, through bilateral channels with key member states and also through multilateral channels with the EU itself in Brussels, is working very hard to advocate for our position in an EU process that is currently unfolding as we speak. We expect the European Union committee to meet later this month on the fuel quality directive to review matters and take decisions, possibly. That's why our engagement has to be at both levels.
I would add one final point. You had mentioned the scope of the Lisbon Treaty. It is absolutely a revolutionary treaty in that sense, and one that was very difficult for the European Union to put in place. You'll recall it took a considerable amount of time and effort to have it ratified in various member countries, but I would absolutely echo your comments about the need for the treaty and the fact that it has now served to update the institutions for the union in a way that reflects its expanded membership and the new realities of this century.