Patience trumps deadlines in EU Canada talks: EU exec

Pressure is on Willonia as outstanding issues are sorted out.

BRUSSELS — The European Union’s executive called for patience in an attempt to save a free trade deal with Canada and dismissed an Oct. 24 deadline for a small Belgian region to provide its vital signature to the deal.

The EU and Canada want to sign the deal at a summit on Oct. 27 in Brussels, for which Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would fly in. But the meeting will be cancelled if the Belgian region of Wallonia, the lone holdout, withholds its approval.

The deal needs unanimity among the 28 EU nations and Belgium is the only approval lacking since it needs the backing of all its regions.

As the summit draws near, pressure has increased on Wallonia, population 3.5 million, to drop its objections over a deal covering 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,” said EU Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas. “The Commission traditionally does not set deadlines or ultimatums.”

Andre Antoine, the head of the Wallonia legislature, said on RTL network that “no, it will not be possible” to back the deal on Oct. 24, arguing there are too many outstanding issues.

Even if the EU-Canada summit has to be called off, it could always be rescheduled when Wallonia has signed on to the agreement, Schinas indicated.

Over the past week, Belgium missed two deadlines to agree to the deal and Canada briefly walked out of the trade talks before returning the next day.

EU officials said that without guarantees that the EU is ready to finalize the deal, there would be no reason to have a summit with Trudeau.

Politicians in Wallonia, which is smaller than the US state of New Jersey, argue that the proposed CETA accord – short for Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement – would undermine labour, environment and consumer standards and allow multinationals to crush local companies.

New attempts were made to sway Wallonia leader Paul Magnette over the weekend.
Magnette said Wallonia still saw difficulties and said a better deal would bolster EU standards and set a strong precedent for future trade talks between Europe and trading partners like the United States or Japan.

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.

Wallonia President Paul Magnette insisted he would agree to nothing under the threat of an ultimatum but remained open to further talks.

“Each time they put forward such an ultimatum it makes a serene discussion and a democratic debate impossible,” Magnette said. “I indicated that other parallel political contacts are still going on and that we could give counter proposals.”

Details about the proposed Canada EU trade deal

• Canada is the EU’s 12th most important trading partner. The EU is Canada’s second-largest trading partner after the U.S. and accounts for nearly 10 per cent of its external trade.

• In 2014, Canadian exports to the EU totalled $39.5 billion, with imports at $53 billion.

• The EU has a population of more than 500 million and a nominal GDP of almost $18 trillion.

• The agreement would eliminate about 98% of the tariffs on both sides of the deal.

• A joint Canada-EU study concluded that the trade agreement could increase bilateral trade by 20 per cent annually and boost Canada’s income by $12 billion annually.

• The study suggested the economic benefit of the agreement would be equivalent to creating almost 80,000 new jobs or increasing the average Canadian household’s annual income by $1,000.

• The first round of negotiations was held in Ottawa in October 2009 and an agreement in principle was announced four years later. After fine-tuning some contentious clauses, a final legal text was released in February 2016.

• Adoption of the deal in Europe has been blocked by Wallonia, a Belgian region of 3.6 million people. The regional parliament rejected the agreement over fears it would threat Walloon farmers and the area’s welfare standards.

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