Brussels | Reuters — Belgium agreed a deal with its regional parliaments on Thursday to approve a landmark EU-Canada free trade agreement, breaking a deadlock that has blocked the pact for weeks.
Prime Minister Charles Michel said the heads of the regions had drawn up an addendum to the agreement that answered their concerns over the rights of farmers and governments — an addendum that still needs the approval of Canada and other EU states.
Canada called the announcement a “positive development,” a cautious welcome echoed by European Council President Donald Tusk, who chairs EU leaders’ summits.
But both stopped short of declaring the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) a done deal.
“Only once all procedures are finalized for EU signing CETA, will I contact (Canadian) PM @JustinTrudeau,” Tusk said in a tweet.
“I am cautiously optimistic, once bitten, twice shy, we hope that the Europeans have agreed between themselves because Canada is ready to sign,” Canada’s Foreign Minister Stephane Dion told reporters on the fringe of a conference on security in Paris.
“If this news becomes reality, it is excellent news.”
All 28 EU governments back CETA, which supporters say could increase trade by 20 per cent, but Belgium had been prevented from giving its consent because of objections led by its French-speaking Wallonia region.
Wallonia, along with the capital Brussels and Belgium’s grouping of French speakers, had opposed the deal for weeks, saying it was bad for Europe’s farmers and gave too much power to global corporate interests.
Belgium’s Prime Minister Michel did not give detail on Thursday on how Wallonia’s concerns had been allayed in the addendum. But the premier of the Flemish region, Geert Bourgeois, said the original 1,598-page text of the trade deal stood.
“This is a clarification, the actual treaty does not change,” he said.
Failure to strike a deal with such a like-minded country as Canada would have called into question the EU’s ability to forge other deals and damage credibility already battered by Britain’s vote to leave the bloc and disputes over the migration crisis.
Canada’s trade minister Chrystia Freeland, who walked out of talks in Walloon capital Namur last Friday, had asked, if the EU could not do a deal with Canada, who could it do a deal with.
“I’m sorry for all other Europeans and our Canadian partners that they had to wait, but what we managed to get here is important not just for Wallonia but for all of Europe,” said Paul Magnette, Socialist premier of the Walloon region who has led opposition to the deal.
He said the Belgian deal meant the trade agreement would be one that set clear rules on the global economic order.
“We want to regulate the market, we want to protect citizens, for that we fought, and I think it was worth it because we were heard.”
— Robert-Jan Bartunek is a Reuters correspondent for Belgium and Luxembourg, based in Brussels. Additional reporting for Reuters by Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels and Marine Pennetier in Paris.