Canadian and EU leaders say free trade deal still possible, despite Belgian roadblock

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 October, 2016, 3:05pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 October, 2016, 3:05pm

The European Union and Canada tried to remain upbeat Monday about the prospects for their trans-Atlantic free trade pact despite a small Belgian region persisting in its refusal to back the deal under the current conditions.

After the setback early Monday, EU President Donald Tusk and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke by telephone and the EU leader said afterward “there’s yet time” to find a compromise solution.

A joint summit for signing the long-delayed trade deal is scheduled for Thursday, offering the two leaders and Belgian officials little time to persuade the Wallonia region to drop its opposition.

Without all Belgian regions supporting the agreement, Belgium cannot sign and the EU needs unanimity from all of its 28 member states.

“We think Thursday’s summit still possible,” Tusk said in a Twitter message. “We encourage all parties to find a solution.”

Canada’s International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland says she, too, is still hopeful that a Canada-EU trade deal can be salvaged, but “the ball is in Europe’s court.”

“Canada’s job is done,” Freeland told a hastily assembled news conference in the foyer of Canada’s House of Commons.

The expressed optimism that a deal could be secured within days came as a surprise since Wallonia had said it has too many concerns with the pact to overcome by Thursday.

The EU’s inability to sign would be a major embarrassment and undermine the belief that the world’s biggest trading bloc is a trustworthy partner as it seeks similar deals with nations like the United States and Japan.

Prospects for a signing ceremony on Thursday looked as good as dead on Monday afternoon when Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel admitted he could not get unanimity amid Belgium’s half dozen regions and legislatures.

“We have been asked to give a clear answer today,” on whether Belgium could sign up as the last of 28 member states,“ Michel said after meeting with Wallonia leader Paul Magnette. ”And the clear answer, at this stage, is no.“

Even though Michel is eager to sign the deal, Belgium’s byzantine constitutional setup means every single region in the country needs to back it, not only the national government. As a result, opposition from a region of 3.5 million could now nix a deal between over 500 million EU citizens and 35 million Canadians.

The EU Commission, which has negotiated the deal on behalf of the 28 nations, insisted that this week’s summit was not the final deadline.

“Now, we need patience,” EU Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas said. “The Commission traditionally does not set deadlines or ultimatums.”

Politicians in Walloniaargue that the proposed CETA accord — short for Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement — would undermine labor, environment and consumer standards.

Proponents say it would yield billions in added trade through tariff cuts and other measures to lower barriers to commerce. At the same time, the EU says it will keep in place the region’s strong safeguards on social, environmental and labour issues.