PRAGUE, Czech Republic - Canada will "vigorously" defend its sealing industry in the wake of a European ban on seal products - but not at the expense of free trade talks, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Wednesday.
"Canada will, both domestically and in front of international tribunals, vigorously defend our sealing industry," said Harper, who arrived in Prague for trade talks with the European Union just hours after the ban was endorsed.
Despite that tough talk, however, Harper also sent a clear signal that Canada's defence of the hunt, which has long been a sore spot in Europe, would not come at the expense of one of its most critical trading relationships.
"I do think its important in relationships, particularly relationships as important as the one with the European Union, that the relationship become not about only one issue," he said.
"If we were to make our trade relations with the European Union only the sealing issue, we will never have any trading relations, because as we know this is a disagreement of long standing, one of which I suspect we may never see eye to eye."
The EU ban, which still requires the approval of European governments, passed with overwhelming support from European parliamentarians and took direct aim at Canada's hunt, calling it "inherently inhumane."
Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams accused the European Union of hypocrisy and said he would prefer to see the commercial hunt continue, though he also mused about the necessity to keep the seal herd in check.
"Europeans should have a good, hard look at themselves," he said Tuesday.
"They're quite prepared to come over here and do business with us on the oil and gas side and other very, very lucrative industries. They're prepared to sell their wine and other products here in Newfoundland and Labrador and Canada, and yet they're after us on this particular one when this is a humane harvest and they know it."
For years, animal rights groups have intensely lobbied European politicians to implement a ban. At times they enlisted the support of celebrities including rock legend Paul McCartney to get their message across that the Canadian hunt, the largest in the world, is cruel and unsustainable.
The European Union bill still needs the backing of EU governments. But officials said that's only a formality since national envoys had already endorsed the legislation prior to Tuesday's vote. The ban is expected to take effect in October.
While it allows for the continued shipment of seal products through Europe, promotion of those same products would be prohibited. Sealing industry experts fear that would shut off access to the runways of Italy and France, countries that are highly influential in determining global fashion trends in the larger markets of Russia and China.
The ban would apply to all products and processed goods derived from seals, including fur, meat, oil blubber and even omega-3 pills made from seal oil.
The new EU rule, however, would offer narrow exemptions to Inuit communities from Canada and Greenland and elsewhere to continue their traditional hunts. But it bars them from a large-scale trading of their pelts, and other seal goods in Europe.
Another exemption would allow for non-commercial and "small-scale" hunts to manage seal populations, but seal products derived from those hunts would not be allowed to enter the EU.
Canada had set a quota of 280,000 harp seals for this year's hunt, but only about 60,000 have been killed because of dwindling markets for seal products.
Last year, Canada exported about $5.5 million of seal products to the EU.