LUXEMBOURG — European Union nations are unlikely to back a landmark trade deal with Canada as scheduled on Tuesday, but remain optimistic they can do so by next week, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is due to fly over to sign it.
Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders said that divisions within his nation over the deal remained even as EU foreign trade ministers were gathering for what should have been a meeting to sign off on the deal.
Instead, Reynders was looking to make further progress at a two-day summit of EU leaders that starts Thursday.
“The goal is to be able to progress at the summit at the end of the week,” he said.
Trudeau is due to travel to Brussels to sign the agreement on Oct. 27. EU Foreign Trade Commissioner Margot Malmstroem said there was still time to overcome Belgian objections right up to “when the prime minister needs to book his tickets from Canada.”
The trade pact requires backing from all 28 member states, and Belgium can only back it if all of its regions do so.
The francophone southern region of Wallonia of 3.5 million again rejected the deal last week. EU and Belgian officials are now working on an interpretive text that goes with the agreement to pull them on board and save the deal between 500 million EU citizens and 35 million Canadians.
“I remain cautiously optimistic about CETA — but at this point the ball is very much in the European court,” International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters Monday in Ottawa.
“We’re working hard with the Europeans … Everyone I talked to today said: ‘Hang on in there, we believe this is going to happen.’ ”
Wallonia fears that its farmers will be priced out of the market with cheap Canadian produce and that many of the labour standards they fought for will be swept away.
Many Walloons also say it will be a precursor for a similar deal with the United States, the so-called TTIP, which they fear will cut even further into their livelihoods and consumer and environmental standards.
Canadian and EU officials have been racing to persuade the Walloons to ditch their opposition to the agreement.
“(Tuesday’s) vote will be very key,” Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion said in Montreal. “We renegotiated the rules of the deal so that we fully clarified that governments can legislate, on their own, progressive social and environmental policies.”
Freeland added that if the deal fails “it would be a real shame.”
“It would also say something quite significant about Europe’s ability to conduct trade policy if they can’t get it done,” she said. “But we’re working hard and there’s still a little bit of time.”
When asked if she thinks the central Belgian government will be able to convince the Walloons, Freeland said there were no guarantees.
“But I know that all of Europe except for Wallonia want this accord,” she added.
Last week, Freeland dispatched special trade envoy Pierre Pettigrew, a former Liberal trade and foreign minister, to meet with Paul Magnette, Wallonia’s leader.
EU countries fear that the bloc will lose credibility if a deal of this size can be scuppered by a member state’s single region.
“If we don’t agree with Canada, with whom are we going to agree? I don’t understand,” said Slovak Minister Peter Ziga, who chaired the meeting. “Belgium is a country that built the European Union from the very beginning,” when trade was key to creating the bloc, he said. “I don’t understand it.”
Tuesday’s initial deadline for the so-called Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with Canada was slipping fast out of reach as Wallonia Minister President Paul Magnette raised last-minute objections. “We will need a few more days,” he said late Monday.
Germany remained confident that the deal would eventually be approved. “I don’t think that the agreement can fail,” German Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel said. Even if some other EU nations don’t feel fully comfortable with the agreement, it is only Belgium’s approval that is missing, officials said.
The deal is expected to 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.
— with files from The Canadian Press