Diplomats representing more than a billion people ask B.C. premier Christy Clark to offer equal treatment on wine

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      B.C. premier Christy Clark faces a united front of foreign opposition to one aspect of her government's liquor reforms.

      The United States and European Union ambassadors to Canada, Bruce Heyman and Marie-Anne Coninsx, are among seven diplomats who've signed a letter calling for changes to the rules regarding the sale of wine in grocery stores.

      The diplomats—including the high commissioners of Australia and New Zealand and the ambassadors of Mexico, Argentina, and Chile—point out that only B.C. wines are permitted on grocery store shelves.

      Imported wine can only be sold in a store-within-a-store concept with separate cash registers and controlled access.

      "The 'store-within-a-store' is also limited by the one-kilometer rule which severely restricts the number of grocery stores that could qualify," the diplomats wrote in their April 29 letter to Clark.

      They claim that these regulations "appear on their face to accord less favourable treatment to imported wine than they do to British Columbia wine".

      Moreover, they "question" whether the rules are consistent with Canada's commitments as a member of the World Trade Organization.

      Specifically, they cite Article III:4 of the 1994 General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. (Previous rulings on this section can be found here.)

      "Accordingly, we request that British Columbia amend the relevant regulations in order to ensure that the sale of wine in grocery stores is permitted on a non-discriminatory basis."

      Collectively, the seven signatories speak on behalf of governments representing more than one billion people. The premier represents the constituency of Westside-Kelowna, which is home to some of B.C.'s oldest wineries.

      According to the Jean Monnet Center for International and Regional Economic Law & Justice at New York University, Article III:4 is used to determine discriminatory treatment based how broadly or narrowly one defines the likeness of goods. 

      In their letter, the diplomats stated that "access to the Canadian market for wine is a shared concern of the signatories".

      "Canada is a top export market for wine. Canadian imports of wine are at or near $2 billion annually," they wrote.

      They copied their letter to International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland.

      B.C. wine producers, however, have maintained that the new rules don't violate international trade law.

      The B.C. Wine Institute issued a statement last year stating that B.C. VQA licences, which have been sold to grocery stores, were "grandfathered into trade agreements".

      "I'm not convinced increased consumer convenience for B.C. wine in grocery stores is as much a trade agreement issue as it is about others wanting to protect their market share," B.C. Wine Institute CEO Miles Prodan said at the time.