BRUSSELS — The European Union president has warned that if a free trade deal with Canada fails due to the opposition by a small Belgian region, it could mean the end of such agreements with any other country.
EU President Donald Tusk and the 28 EU leaders are pushing hard to have Belgium’s francophone Wallonia region back the so-called CETA deal, which needs unanimity among all EU members. Belgium can only back it if it has unanimity among all of its regions.
Tusk said at the start of a two-day summit, where leaders will have to discuss the issue, that “If we are not able to convince people that trade agreements are in their interest… I am afraid, that CETA could be our last free trade agreement.”
To have the deal between over 500 million EU citizens and 35 million Canadians fall apart over the objections of a region of 3.5 million after seven years of talks would undermine the credibility of the EU as a whole, said Tusk.
Many others at the meeting joined in the astonishment that Wallonia could wield such clout in the face of countries like Germany and France.
“Nobody would understand if it were not possible now, after so many efforts,” an exasperated Martin Schulz, the EU Parliament chief, told the summit leaders.
Even Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel would like to do nothing better than sign-on instead of dragging the summit of leaders into the byzantine subtleties of Belgium’s constitutional setup between its Dutch, French, and German-speaking language groups.
Michel said he needed Wallonia’s backing. “I have a lot of respect for the role of our parliaments and democracy. But democracy means that at one moment you need a decision.”
Trade will be on the summit’s agenda on Friday, and talks to convince Wallonia should be concluded by then, the leaders hope.
The official signing ceremony of the trade deal is set for Oct. 27 when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is supposed to attend an EU-Canada summit. Without the deal ready for signature, it will be cancelled.
Wallonia wants more guarantees to protect its farmers and Europe’s high labour, environmental and consumer standards. It also fears the agreement will allow huge multinationals — first from Canada, later from the United States, if a similar deal with Washington follows — that would crush small Walloon enterprises and their way of life.
Proponents say the deal would 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.
On Wednesday, Canada’s trade minister, Chrystia Freeland, met with the head of Wallonia in an effort to save the trade deal.
— With files from The Canadian Press