AFP - The head of the Belgian region of Wallonia yesterday said he still refused to sign off on a massive EU trade deal with Canada, calling a last-minute offer “insufficient”.
EU leaders at a summit in Brussels were anxiously awaiting a breakthrough in talks with French-speaking Wallonia amid fears it may wreck the bloc’s credibility in negotiating future trade pacts. “I feel there is a will to advance but there remain difficulties... these (advances) upon analysis seem insufficient,” said Paul Magnette, Wallonia’s head of government.
Magnette spoke after marathon talks with Canadian Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland and an EU official in the capital of Wallonia, the walled medieval city of Namur, 70 km (40 miles) southeast of Brussels. The Namur parliament last week voted to block the deal, known as CETA -- meaning that Belgium cannot sign up to the pact and leaving the deal in limbo after seven years of negotiations.
The hold up also threatens to torpedo next week’s planned visit to Brussels by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to sign the deal. CETA would link the EU market of 500 million people with the world’s 10th biggest economy.
But opponents say CETA is a dangerous free-market precedent that would lower health welfare standards in Europe and hurt farmers. Magnette yesterday pointed in particular to a highly controversial investment protection scheme buried in the deal that has drawn the fury of activists. This proposal is supposed to protect investors who fear that local laws such as health and safety regulations can violate a trade deal and threaten their investments.
Opponents instead say it allows commercial interests to force governments to change laws.
“I have the impression that the Walloon government has radicalised its position,” said the Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel who firmly backs the deal.
Canada has said it is losing paticience with the EU and that Trudeau would cancel his visit, set for October 27, if there is no breakthrough. Magnette has asked that the visit by Trudeau be delayed indefinitely. EU leaders in Brussels for an EU summit that would tackle trade issues, urged Wallonia to sign off on the deal.
“I’m insisting we need this trade arrangement with Canada. It is the best one we have ever concluded,” said Jean-Claude Juncker, the head of the European Commission, which handles trade negotiations for the EU.
European Council President Donald Tusk warned CETA “could be our last free trade agreement, if we are not able to convince people that we negotiate to protect their interests.”
The Canada deal is opposed by a wide array of groups, who also say it is a test model to push through an even more controversial EU-US trade deal called TTIP, still in negotiation.