BRUSSELS: Belgium announced Thursday a breakthrough in talks to secure a landmark EU-Canada trade deal by winning over the leaders of a recalcitrant Belgian region, potentially snapping a deadlock which threatened European credibility anew.
However, the announcement came too late for EU leaders and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to go ahead with a signing ceremony in Brussels on Thursday.
“An agreement” has been found in support of the deal, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel told a press conference after marathon talks to win over holdouts in Belgium’s French-speaking community.
Canada’s Foreign Minister Stephane Dion hailed the move to break the logjam.
“If it materializes, it’s excellent news,” he said during a visit to Paris, adding he was “cautiously optimistic.” Under complex constitutional arrangements, Michel needed all of Belgium’s regional governments to back the deal before he could sign up.
In turn, the accord required all 28 EU members to approve it.
Confirmation of the intra-Belgian agreement came swiftly from Paul Magnette, the head of government of the southern French-speaking Wallonia region and the leading holdout to the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement (CETA).
Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, hailed the “good news” from Michel as he tweeted that he would contact Trudeau “once all procedures are finalized for EU signing CETA.”
Tusk, who had warned that failed negotiations with such a close ally as Canada would have a serious impact on Brussels’ international standing, had hoped for a signing summit with Trudeau until as late as Wednesday morning.
“Today’s summit is canceled. For now, no new date has been set,” a European source told AFP on condition of anonymity. “The next step is for the entire EU to be able to sign the agreement.”
With no agreement in sight, Trudeau’s office said overnight that he had postponed plans to travel to Brussels.
Canada’s Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland had earlier dismissed Brussels as “incapable” of steering international negotiations.
The stakes have been high as Belgium had become a lighting rod for warnings that the EU’s international standing, already battered by Britain’s shock June Brexit vote, would suffer further if seven years of trade negotiations go to waste.
Hinging on the outcome are trade talks with other countries, including more controversial negotiations with the United States.
The CETA pact would link the EU’s single market of 500 million people — the world’s biggest — with Canada’s 10th largest global economy in what would be the most ambitious tie-up of its kind so far.
In almost a week of drawn-out talks, leaders of Wallonia, a 3.5 million-strong region south of Brussels, had demanded guarantees that CETA will not harm local farming and other interests.
Magnette had especially opposed terms of the deal intended to protect international investors which critics say could allow them to force governments to change laws against the wishes of the people.
“We have finally found an agreement among the Belgians that will now be submitted to European institutions and our European partners,” Magnette said. “Wallonia is extremely happy that our demands were heard,” he added.
EU sources told AFP the documents agreed by the Belgian politicians must be vetted by all 28 EU member states as well as the Wallon parliament and other Belgian government institutions.
An EU source told AFP on condition of anonymity that Tusk might phone Trudeau on Saturday to discuss the next steps, including possibly a signing ceremony.