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Meet the poker-faced top trade mind expected to lead Canada’s NAFTA negotiating team

By Samantha Wright Allen      

Steve Verheul led the team that clinched Canada’s massive EU trade deal. The son of an Ontario dairy businessman, colleagues say he’s the quintessential trade diplomat: discreet, unflappable, and attuned to both political realities and technical details.

Colleagues describe Steve Verheul as a skilled, strategic mind who can defend Canada’s interests against Mexico and the United States after doing the same during a decade of trade talks with the European Union. The Hill Times photograph by Sam Garcia
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There’s a long-standing joke among those who know Steve Verheul: you don’t want to play poker with the guy. At the table, no matter the subject, Canada’s former-CETA-now-expected-NAFTA chief negotiator doesn’t have a “tell.”

“It’s the same reaction, whether it’s good, bad, or different, which makes being a negotiator against him or with him tricky,” said David Plunkett, who worked as Canada’s ambassador to the European Union while the Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement was being negotiated. “You don’t know what you’re up against in many ways.”

Of course, that’s the main job of any chief negotiator; but the way many tell it, Mr. Verheul is especially gifted. A bureaucrat who is respected by politicians across party lines and among academics and industry representatives, he is set to defend Canada’s interests during North American Free Trade Agreement negotiations in the face of a protectionist United States president, Donald Trump, who has already hinted issues like supply management will become battlegrounds.

Interviews with more than a dozen former and current politicians, public servants, and colleagues reveal a quiet and considered man who won trust from business and government alike for his command of the issues and unflappable personality. They paint a picture of a very private man whose understated approach is highly effective, bolstered by deep technical knowledge and a calm demeanour in the face of long hours and frustrating discussions.

“He’s got an uncanny ability to master simultaneously the high-level strategic issues and the minute technical questions,” said Matthew Kronby, who has known him for about 12 years and headed Canada’s Trade Law Bureau from 2009 to 2012.

Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, right, sits beside Canada’s chief negotiator for CETA, Steve Verheul, in April 2016 in Brussels as the two discuss the deal with Martin Schulz, European Parliament president, opposite left. Photograph courtesy of the European Union Parliament

Colleagues say he won Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland’s (University-Rosedale, Ont.) trust and confidence when he helped yank CETA “back out of the ditch.” While he earned praise in the House in November after the fraught, almost decade-long negotiations had been saved, observers say he’s content to work in the background and let members of the executive branch of government take credit.

When Queen’s University professor emeritus Robert Wolfe was at a recent NAFTA consultation meeting, he said Mr. Verheul was the way he always is: “Giving nothing away,” said Mr. Wolfe. “He has zero need for the limelight.”

Soft-spoken and described as always prepared, always in a suit and tie, always available, Mr. Verheul worked with Ms. Freeland to salvage the deal when at the last minute a Belgian regional parliament threatened to block it.

He’s expected to join a small group of top Canadian trade minds the government is assembling as part of a broader approach to NAFTA renegotiations. The Canadian Press reported on Aug. 1 that Kirsten Hillman, another top trade negotiator and up until recently assistant deputy minister overseeing all trade negotiations, is being dispatched to Washington as Canada’s deputy ambassador to the U.S. She had been Canada’s chief negotiator to the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks.

In addition to her, the government is expected to establish an advisory council to guide Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland in her NAFTA work, and to name several diplomats with strong trade experience to key consulates in the U.S., and perhaps open more.

Becoming a chief negotiator

The son of a southern Ontario dairy-farm equipment supplier, Mr. Verheul stays connected to those roots. For two decades, he worked in international trade policy at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, after stints with the Ontario and federal governments in the five years following his graduation in 1984 from the University of Western Ontario with a masters of arts in political science. At the agriculture ministry, he worked on the first NAFTA negotiations, the Uruguay Round of multilateral trade negotiations that led to the establishment of the World Trade Organization (WTO), and the Doha Round of WTO negotiations. He was named Canada’s chief agriculture negotiator in 2003, a post he kept for six years before moving to the CETA file in 2009, the year the first round of negotiations began.

Mr. Verheul did not respond to requests for comment and Global Affairs Canada did not respond to questions about his position or team members.

Steve Verheul pictured in 2013 at a House Trade Committee meeting with Ana Renart, Canada’s deputy chief trade negotiator for the CETA at the time. The Hill Times photograph by Sneh Duggal

With most of the CETA set to come into force this fall, there was some uncertainty as to where Mr. Verheul would land next. While leading the European Union talks, he didn’t necessarily have a linear spot on the foreign ministry’s organizational chart.

The EU trade agreement was a unique and high-profile deal for Canada, in that the provinces had a rare seat at the negotiating table, and the deal encompassed provincial procurement and other aspects that go beyond simple tariff reductions. It involved Canada gaining access to a massive market of 500 million consumers.

Mr. Verheul started meeting with lobbying groups in February and March when they say it became “widely known” he was taking the chief negotiator post for NAFTA, though it has still not been confirmed by the foreign ministry. This followed his past approach of making himself highly available to lobby groups and provincial governments in meetings and late-night calls to Ottawa from Brussels offering updates on the EU deal.

The federal lobbyist registry shows close to 560 communications reports dating back to 2008 connected to his name, including 11 with the Chamber of Commerce.

Steven creates an impression of a very considerable frankness and openness in his discussions. You never get the sense that he’s hiding things,” said Warren Everson, the chamber’s senior vice-president of policy, laughing as he added: “Since he almost certainly is, that means he’s a good negotiator.”

Steve Verheul, pictured in Brussels in 2015, is described by colleagues as shrewd and soft-spoken and an excellent choice to lead NAFTA talks after almost a decade dealing with the CETA as the country’s chief negotiator. Photograph courtesy of the European Union

‘Cut his teeth’ in agriculture

When Conservative MP Ed Fast (Abbotsford, B.C.) became trade minister in 2011, the CETA negotiations were well underway and Mr. Verheul was already the “key guy” directing a vast group of specialists.

“What a lot of people don’t understand, a negotiating team can involve up to 150 people,” he said, because every aspect of the negotiations will require special expertise and can have a number of provincial counterparts at the table.

Former trade minister Ed Fast says Steve Verheul has ‘proven time and time again that he is eminently qualified and has the temperament to be able to negotiate an agreement.’ The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

It was fortunate Mr. Verheul had “cut his teeth” in agriculture because dairy proved to be one of the most contentious pieces of the negotiations—and may again with NAFTA after Mr. Trump’s comment that Canada’s supply-management system is “very unfair” to American dairy farmers. 

“Steve is always prepared to walk away from the table when there are proposals being floated that just do not serve Canada’s national interests,” said Mr. Fast, adding he expects key members of the team will meet to craft defensive positions, with the government giving Mr. Verheul authority to move on some issues. “It’s elevated to the ministerial level when impasses are reached.”

Mr. Fast’s former senior adviser, Adam Taylor, said Mr. Verheul understood the political pressures in concession and the need for buy-in among stakeholders.

“Despite being a non-partisan public servant, he was well attuned to the political realities that governments face and was able to work with all sides and achieve an outcome that was supported by all provinces,” said Mr. Taylor, principal at Export Action Global.

Steve Verheul with his European Union counterpart Mauro Petriccione during the CETA talks. Photograph courtesy of European Union Parliament

His European Union counterpart Mauro Petriccione said over the years the two became good friends.

“He will continue to work tirelessly on something until he is certain he’s got it right,” he said in a statement.

Mr. Verheul’s style was in sharp contrast to the Italian negotiator, observed Jason Langrish, executive director of the Canada Europe Roundtable for Business.

“[Mr. Petriccione’s] style is to talk, turn verbal gymnastics,” said Mr. Langrish, but the Canadian didn’t take the brash approach. “Steve’s was to be patient and listen intently and tell you what you generally need to know and no more.”

‘Even the negotiators were using Steve to negotiate’

A couple shared meals years ago in Geneva showed Conservative MP Gerry Ritz (Battlefords-Lloydminster, Sask.), a former agriculture minister, the respect Mr. Verheul had earned among international trade experts.

Conservative MP Gerry Ritz has shared meals with Steve Verheul, and speaks fondly of the Canadian negotiator’s skills and wit. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

The WTO director-general at the time, Pascal Lamy, had a habit of hosting “clandestine meetings,” said Mr. Ritz, purposefully leaving Canada—and Mr. Verheul—out of the room in favour of the United States, Russia, China, India, or Australia.

Over lunch, Mr. Ritz watched as the Canadian negotiator’s BlackBerry lit up with messages from those in a meeting he wasn’t invited to.

“Any of the five that were in the room…would be texting him and saying, ‘Russia just said this, India just said that. What should I do?’ And he would send back a response,” said Mr. Ritz, chuckling. “Even the negotiators [were] using Steve to negotiate.”

“None of them knew the other was doing it and Steve is that type of negotiator: he’s not giving away sources but at the end of the day he’s certainly making use of those sources,” said Mr. Ritz, who told MPs in November if anyone was the arbitrator of “what kept the WTO alive,” it was Mr. Verheul who had “his hand on the lever.”

In an interview, Mr. Ritz, who sits on the House Trade Committee and is his party’s trade critic said: “He has a sarcastic wit…You’d [have to] to draw it out of him, he’s not going to volunteer it.”

He’s not one to volunteer information about his personal life either, but colleagues say Mr. Verheul is passionate about his children. His late father, Piet Verheul, who was part of the Dutch underground and immigrated to Canada after the Second World War, would share news clippings about his son’s career with longtime employee Henry Helder.

“He showed them to me and he was quite proud of his son, what he did,” said Mr. Helder, of the elder Mr. Verheul, who died in 2016. They’d look at the pictures and father would wonder aloud to Mr. Helder: “Shy little Steve in this kind of job.”


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