The EU and Canada signed a free trade accord Friday after four years of tough talks, saying it will boost growth and set the stage for others, including a massive EU-US deal.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper hailed it as "the biggest (trade) deal our country has ever made" while European Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso said it was "highly ambitious and far-reaching ... (and) of great importance for the EU economy."

It will provide new opportunities by increasing market access and "be the basis for gaining a strong foothold in the North American market and so provide a catalyst for growth and the creation of jobs in Europe," Barroso said.

The accord is widely seen as a possible template for EU efforts to conclude a similar Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the United States, touted as one of the biggest free-trade agreements ever.

According to EU figures, bilateral trade in goods last year was worth 61.7 billion euros ($84 billion), with Canada the EU's 11th largest trading partner, while the 28-member bloc was Ottawa's second most important market after the United States.

EU investment in Canada meanwhile came to 220 billion euros as of 2011, with Canada holding investments worth 140 billion euros in the now 28-member European Union.

Barroso, noting the deal was the EU's first with a Group of Eight country, said it could increase trade by up to 26 billion euros and add 12 billion euros to EU economic output.

Some 99 percent of tariffs on both sides will be removed.

Sticking points, approval process

The talks began in 2009 and were supposed to end last year but were held up by sharp differences over agriculture, a sensitive subject for both, along with financial services, generic medicines and public procurement in Canada's provinces.

A key sticking point was Ottowa's request for increased access for its beef while the EU wanted to cut tariffs of up to 300 percent shielding Canada's dairy industry from imports of European cheese.

Reflecting such difficulties, the agreement signed Friday is one in principle, not a final document.

Outstanding technical issues will be resolved as it goes through the formal political and parliamentary approval process on both sides, with implementation expected in 2015.

Harper insisted Canadian farmers had not been sacrificed, stressing the country now gains greater access to an EU market of 500 million people.

That makes the accord bigger even than the landmark 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with the United States and Mexico, he said.

"It is not just a good deal, it is an excellent deal," he said, rejecting suggestions it could be held up for years by vociferous opposition at home.

"I am confident of its adoption," he said, adding that the business community -- which has been very supportive -- will now likely begin to implement the terms pro-actively.

"You will find very few Canadians opposed," Harper added, discounting opposition to free trade as confined to an "ideologically driven fringe".

Asked about the deal's importance for TTIP, Barroso said the EU expected it "to set some standards for other negotiations ... not only with United States but with Japan, Mercosur."

"This is part of our vision about the liberalisation of trade in the world," he added

The EU has embarked on a whole series of FTAs as the prospects of a new global trade liberalisation accord being negotiated under the auspices of the World Trade Organization have faded to virtually zero.

Earlier Friday, EU member states agreed a negotiating mandate for talks on an investment protection accord with China.