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Trudeau launches EU-Canada Summit in Newfoundland with research announcement

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right, welcomes the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, left, and the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen during a reception at the Quidi Vidi Brewery in St. John's on Thursday, November 23, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Daly

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau kicked off a two-day summit with the top two heads of the European Union on Thursday night in a small brewpub on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean in Newfoundland and Labrador's capital city of St. John's. 

Though formal discussions with European Council President Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen are expected to begin Friday, Trudeau wasted no time making announcements during his summit-opening speech on Thursday night.

He said Canada is joining the European Union's $100-billion scientific research program, called Horizon Europe, which he called "the greatest research and innovation mechanism in the world right now." Canada has also worked out a deal to build water bombers and ship them to the EU, after both regions faced devastating forest fires this past summer, Trudeau told the crowd at the Quidi Vidi Brewery.

"These are the kinds of things that friends can do when they come together," he said, describing Canada and the EU as "some of the best friends in the world."

"As we talk about the transatlantic partnership, what better place to dig into it than a rock in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean?" he added.

This year's EU-Canada Summit in St. John's is the 19th such meeting between Canada's prime minister and the heads of the bloc of 27 countries. The meetings are held every two years, and the last summit took place in Brussels in 2021.

The summit comes as wars rage in the Gaza Strip and Ukraine, and both Trudeau and Michel spoke of the unrest on Thursday. Michel said Canada and the EU have long shared the same values about democracy, dignity and freedom, and the ongoing violence underscored the need for the two countries to work together on issues from peace and security to fighting climate change.

"We are not separated by an ocean, we are connected by this ocean," Michel said.

A group of about two dozen pro-Palestinian protesters lined the narrow street outside the building, waving Palestinian flags and chanting "Ceasefire now!" Canada has called for "humanitarian pauses" in the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, though the Liberals have been under sustained pressure from humanitarian organizations, Muslim groups and even some of their MPs to endorse calls for a ceasefire.

Hydrogen energy will also be a big topic of discussion, as Atlantic Canada angles to become a major supplier of hydrogen fuel to European markets, particularly Germany, Trudeau said. 

A man at the helm of that effort was among the crowd watching Trudeau's speech. Seafood tycoon John Risley is aiming to build a massive wind-powered hydrogen and ammonia production facility in western Newfoundland with his company, World Energy GH2. He helped bring German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to western Newfoundland last year to sign an agreement with Trudeau to build a hydrogen energy partnership. 

Risley said he's looking for the Europeans to ante up. Canada, he said, has come up with programs and loans to back hydrogen developments, including a clean hydrogen investment tax credit. Risley also estimates his company will invest about $250 million into its project before he and his co-directors are ready to make a final investment decision.

He said now it's Europe's turn to make a solid, substantial investment to help move the hydrogen partnership along. Ideally, a country like Germany would announce a program that would help support one of its large industries, like steel production, transition to hydrogen energy, he added.

"Because industry isn't going to make the switch if they don't get some help," Risley said. 

He said it's "scary" to be at the precipice of a new energy industry, waiting for action from slow-moving governments with so much of his own money at stake.

"But on the other hand, it's very exciting because we're standing up a whole new industry that could be huge," he said. Atlantic Canada has a "natural right" to lead a global transition from fossil fuels to hydrogen, he added.

"We've got the wind," Risley said. "The wind blows more often than the sun shines. So let's take advantage."

Trudeau is expected to hold formal meetings on Friday with Michel and von der Leyen.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 23, 2023.

Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press

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