Former prime minister Brian Mulroney says the Canada-EU trade deal is “significant but it’s not in the same league” as the free trade agreement he negotiated with the United States 25 years ago.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper signed an agreement-in-principle with European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso on Friday. But the text of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) remains under wraps amidst ongoing “drafting and fine tuning,” one official told The Canadian Press.

It could be 18 months to two years before a final deal is signed and the full details are unveiled. However, the deal gives Canadian companies access to 500 million new consumers, could create some 80,000 new Canadian jobs and is projected to boost the Canadian economy by billions of dollars.

Mulroney told CTV’s Question Period in an interview that aired Sunday that the EU deal is not on par with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that he negotiated with then-president Ronald Reagan, an agreement that represented the largest bilateral trade deal “in world history.”

But the EU free trade agreement represents Harper’s “economic policy writ large.”

“It’s very significant as an indication of the government’s thinking and its desire to expand trade and create jobs,” Mulroney said. “I think it’s a big-ticket item. It’s a big deal.”

Harper flew to Brussels, Belgium to sign the deal a day after Parliament returned from a summer break extended by five weeks by prorogation. His decision to forgo the first question period of the new session drew a strong rebuke from the opposition parties, which accused Harper of using his trip to Brussels to dodge questions about the ongoing Senate expenses scandal.

But Mulroney said Friday’s announcement should give Harper some positive momentum for the next Parliamentary session. “This is the first time that Europe has entered into this comprehensive a deal with a North American country. We were very good in getting in there ahead of the Americans, because we would have been lost in the tidal wave after,” Mulroney said.

But he cautioned the prime minister against aggressive language like the kind he used at a recent question-and-answer session in New York, where he said Canada would not “take no for an answer” on a project like the proposed Keystone pipeline. Harper is awaiting a decision by U.S. President Barack Obama on whether to allow the project to go ahead.

And while he says he “admires much of what Prime Minister Harper and (Foreign Affairs) Minister John Baird have done internationally,” he doesn’t think they should boycott the upcoming Commonwealth meetings in Sri Lanka, as they have vowed to do over that country’s human rights record.

Mulroney said because many of the member states are developing countries with specific problems, the best course of action is to “leverage” the power of the 50-member body to make change.

“I always felt that if you were going to boycott the Commonwealth because of illustrations of improper government or abuse or treatment of people within some of the member countries, some days you wouldn’t have too many people around that Commonwealth table for tea,” Mulroney said.

“The best thing that I think we can do is to be there at the table and illustrate by our presence the value of what we’ve learned as a country over 146 years and how we conduct ourselves with our democracy and with our generosity to friends internationally.”

Mulroney said Harper can leverage his position to be able to sign trade deals and make headlines on big-ticket foreign affairs files as he heads toward the 2015 federal election.

“I simply alerted (the Conservatives) to what I thought was true: Justin Trudeau is a far more formidable political leader than the Conservatives at the time tended to give him credit for,” Mulroney said of his earlier endorsement of the Liberal leader.

“To be careful of this, because this attitude is going to lead to unpleasant consequences for you. I think what Mr. Harper should do is continuing doing what he’s doing. For example, this free trade agreement. If you can do things like that, that the leader of the opposition or the leader of the third party just can’t get done, he can build a record on that.”