The European Union and Canada signed Sunday a landmark trade pact, ending days of drama after a small Belgian region refused to endorse the agreement and deeply embarrassed the EU.
The long-delayed Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement was bedeviled by yet another hold up overnight when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s plane had to return to Ottawa because of mechanical issues.
“What patience,” exclaimed European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker as he embraced the arriving Trudeau at EU headquarters in Brussels.
In a brief exchange together in French, Trudeau said “difficult things are difficult, but we were able to succeed.” He declined to speak to reporters.
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But even though it’s now signed, it doesn’t signal the finish line. Ratification is not guaranteed.
But at least he got this far.
As Trudeau arrived for his talks just before noon local time, a reporter shouted out in French, asking if he was angry at the Walloons.
He just smiled and waved, focusing on greeting warmly and posing for pictures with EU leaders Tusk and Juncker.
Trudeau had initially expected to sign the deal in Brussels days ago, but the restive Belgian region of Wallonia nearly killed the deal because of its opposition to the pact’s investor-state dispute settlement mechanism.
International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland and her envoy, former cabinet minister Pierre Pettigrew, appeared relaxed and smiling as the trip began — a sharp contrast to the mood when Freeland and her chief negotiator, Steve Verheul, took the difficult decision of stepping away from 11th-hour talks as the fate of the agreement moved to the brink a week ago in Belgium.
“It’s a great day for Canada. It’s a great day for Europe,” Freeland said as she arrived at the European Council building Sunday.
Protesters outside EU
Outside EU headquarters, a rowdy group of about 250 anti-CETA protesters gathered to block the front entrance as riot police watched. Red paint was smeared on the building.
Police took away about 15 people, but did not break up the protest, a television news reporter for The Associated Press said.
Beyond the signing ceremony, Canadian officials are meeting their counterparts to talk about the next steps, now that Belgium has resolved its internal debates and joined the other 27 EU countries in signing on.
Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion and Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard are among those meeting with EU leaders and officials in a scaled-down version of the Canada-Europe summit that was originally scheduled for last Thursday and Friday.
Former Quebec Premier Jean Charest, who was instrumental in starting negotiations and remains a strong advocate of the deal, is also in Brussels Sunday.
The Canadian delegation also will meet with Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament, to discuss timelines for the agreement’s ratification vote. That parliament’s trade committee is expected to begin its review of the deal before the end of the year.
Des manifestants ont lancé de la peinture sur le siège du Conseil de l’UE. pic.twitter.com/qPvDSdays3
Negotiations towards the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) began under Stephen Harper’s former Conservative government in 2009.
The text was finalized two years ago, but the EU hit pause on signing and ratification as opposition to parts of the deal built across Europe, particularly in the face of fresh concerns about similar trade negotiations between the EU and the United States.
International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland agreed last winter to reopen its controversial investor-state dispute resolution clauses, replacing them with a new European investor court system it hoped to put in place not just for Canadian investors, but in any subsequent trading relationships.
Civil society groups, however, believe this part of the deal not only wasn`t needed between like-minded democratic partners, but was a threat to the sovereign ability of countries to regulate in areas such as environmental or labour policies without fear of being sued by foreign corporations.
Pressure built on left and centre-left parties across Europe to reject the deal.
Belgium almost vetoed
In a political compromise, the EU decided last summer that a small part of the agreement, including the investor court system, would not apply until every one of the 28 member countries in the EU had a chance to vote on its full ratification.
Without reopening the deal, Canada worked with the EU over the last two months to draft a “joint interpretative instrument”: a formal document annexed onto the main agreement intended to clarify CETA’s more controversial measures.
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Skepticism about the deal peaked over the last two weeks, when politicians in Belgium’s southern Wallonia region voted no and effectively vetoed CETA, until last-minute lobbying resulted in a declaration in Belgium Thursday and re-votes on Friday to set the signing back in motion.
Most of CETA could be provisionally applied sometime next year, after it passes a ratification vote in the European Parliament. Canada’s parliament and provincial legislatures also need to pass implementation legislation.
Once that happens, tariffs are set to drop on 98 per cent of the goods traded between Canada and the EU. For the first time, Canadian businesses will be able to bid on European government procurement.
Federal compensation programs for several Canadian industries now facing new threats from European imports are expected to be announced soon.
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Follow @janycemcgregor on Twitter for updates from Brussels this weekend.