EU Battles to Save Canada Trade Pact Amid Belgian Hurdle

  • Split in Belgium may hinder green light at EU meeting Tuesday
  • Walloon leader says accord puts region ‘under severe pressure’

The European Union’s draft free-trade agreement with Canada hung in the balance on Monday as Belgium continued its scramble to overcome a domestic political split that may prevent EU governments from giving their green light to the deal.

The Belgian government is still seeking authority to sign off on the EU-Canada accord from the French-speaking southern region of Wallonia, which wants the pact reopened to add safeguards and refused to back down during talks over the weekend. The stalemate threatens to spoil a meeting on Tuesday of EU trade ministers that is meant to mark the first step in the European ratification process of what is the bloc’s first commercial agreement with a fellow member of the Group of Seven leading industrialized countries.

With the pact requiring the unanimous backing of the EU’s 28 national governments as well as the endorsement of the European Parliament to take provisional effect in 2017, Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders held out the possibility that the obstacle posed by his country would make its way onto the agenda of an Oct. 20-21 gathering of EU leaders.

“I hope for a successful outcome tomorrow,” Reynders told reporters on Monday in televised remarks at a gathering of EU foreign ministers. “If not, at the end of the week during the meeting of heads of state and government.”

‘Severe Pressure’

At stake is an accord known as the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, or CETA, that the EU says would boost its economic output by about 12 billion euros ($13 billion) a year and expand EU-Canada trade by about a quarter. Beyond that, any collapse of CETA, which took five years to negotiate, would take the steam out of a series of separate free-trade talks that the bloc is pursuing with the U.S., Japan and other countries.

The EU is tentatively planning to host an Oct. 27 summit with Canada to celebrate CETA. Canada’s Trade Minister, Chrystia Freeland, said Monday Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would cancel his trip without a deal. European officials repeatedly assured her on Monday that CETA approval was “going to happen,” she said.

The deliberations on overcoming Belgium’s domestic political divide have also involved the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm in Brussels.

Wallonia Opposition

The leader of Wallonia, Paul Magnette, told the parliament there on Monday that CETA puts the region “under severe pressure” and reiterated the call for safeguards that he didn’t detail. Magnette said it’s premature to predict the outcome of the talks on defusing the situation.

Belgium’s government “is strongly supportive of this deal. It’s now a question of Wallonia,” Freeland told reporters in Ottawa on Monday, adding that the premier of Canada’s most heavily French-speaking province, Quebec, had directly appealed to Wallonia to support the deal. “I remain cautiously optimistic about CETA, but at this point the ball is very much in the European court.”

Some room for compromise may be offered through a declaration being worked out to accompany the agreement. On Oct. 5, commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said the declaration would soothe unease over CETA in some EU nations.

Reynders stressed the value of CETA and his government’s support for the accord.

“We really have a very good agreement,” Reynders said. “I believe that, on this basis, we should be able to advance. That’s the position of the federal government in Belgium.”

— With assistance by Josh Wingrove, and John Martens

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