BRUSSELS — In a race against the clock, the European Union edged closer Wednesday to being able to sign a free trade deal with Canada after Belgium made progress in lifting the veto of one of its regions.
But Wallonia leader Paul Magnette said late Wednesday that his region would not be able to back the deal in the coming hours, making it ever more unlikely the full signing ceremony with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau could be held on Thursday.
“No, tonight, no agreement! There are still a lot of legal and technical verifications to do,” Magnette said as he entered late night talks. He said an EU-Canada summit would come “one day, but not tomorrow!”
Belgium needs all its regions to sign on and the EU, in turn, needs unanimity among all its 28 states.
In Ottawa, Trudeau suggested he’s prepared to wait out a longer timeline.
“We are confident that in the coming days we will see a positive outcome for this historic deal,” the prime minister told the Commons during question period Wednesday.
Rudy Demotte, leader of the Wallonia-Brussels federation, which is closely aligned with the francophone Wallonia region in Belgium’s byzantine constitutional structure, said a summit on Thursday “would be very difficult.”
Magnette said that some details still need to be clarified, notably in the agriculture sector where he wants his farmers better protected.
If the regional leaders agree, the adjustments to assuage Wallonia would have to be vetted by the 27 other nations and then likely still have to go back to the regional francophone legislatures for approval. It makes the deadline for signature ever tighter.
If not Thursday, the summit could be postponed for later in the year, but the failure would be an embarrassment for the EU, the world’s biggest trading bloc which wants to project itself as a dependable global partner.
Politicians in Wallonia, which has a population of 3.6 million compared to over 500 million for the whole EU, argue that the proposed accord would undermine labour, environment and consumer standards.
Proponents say it would yield billions in added trade through customs and 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.
He said Wallonia’s insistence on a better deal would bolster EU standards and set a strong precedent for other trade talks between Europe and trading partners like the United States or Japan.
–With files from The Canadian Press