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Hope remains for CETA, although Belgium’s Walloon region still opposes trade pact

A top European Union official says he remains hopeful a compromise can be found to clear the way for signing a trade pact between Canada and the 28-nation bloc as planned next Thursday, but a lone region in Belgium has affirmed it’s not ready to support the agreement.

CETA (Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement) is being blocked by Wallonia, a French-speaking region in Belgium. People there worry the deal will hurt their farmers and public services.

The Walloon leader on Saturday said he’s still not on side, even though all national governments of the EU are ready to sign an agreement that was seven years in the making.

“I think it’s worth taking a little more time,” Walloon leader Paul Magnette said after a meeting in Brussels with European Parliament President Martin Schulz, arranged in an effort to save the pact.

Schulz, who earlier Saturday met with Canadian International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland, said Europe will work to ease any concerns.

“I think we clarified a lot of points. Other points I will discuss with President Magnette a little bit later. But I take note today that the Canadian side is prepared to sign,” he said.

“The problems on the table are European problems, and we have to solve it. And I’m very confident that we can solve the problems that we have within the European Union,” he said.

At a joint news conference with Schulz before heading home, Freeland emphasized that Canada is finished negotiating.

EU-Belgium talks collapse

A dejected International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland, right, leaves talks in Brussels Friday aimed at resolving objections by Wallonia Minister-President Paul Magnette, left, that are holding up the Canada-EU trade deal. ((Reuters/VRT Belgium video image))

“From Canada’s perspective, our work is done,” she said on Saturday. “We’ve done our job, and Canada is ready to sign this agreement. Now the ball is in Europe’s court and it’s time for Europe to finish doing its job.”

Vocal farmers central to objections

Although Freeland headed back to Canada, she hopes to return with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the coming week to sign CETA.

​David Kleimann, a researcher of of EU trade law and policy at the European University Institute, told CBC News, after the meetings at the European Parliament Saturday, that he was hearing that things were looking “quite good now.”

Negotiations continue, however, on the joint interpretative declaration that would be annexed to the legal text.

“The Walloons are having trouble (understanding) the investment protection provisions of the treaty,” he wrote to CBC News, “as well as the validity (of the) EU ban (on) hormone-treated beef.”

The fate of Wallonia’s vocal and powerful farmers has been central to the region’s trade objections.

Canada is unwilling to reopen the deal’s tariff changes and market access provisions for agricultural commodities, which would allow more Canadian farm products to enter the relatively sealed-off EU.

Difficulties over secretive arbitration deal 

Magnette said Friday that his talks with Freeland had made progress on agricultural issues. 

The “difficulties” Magnette identified as remaining are on “the symbolic issue of arbitration, which is politically extremely important,” he said.

The declaration was intended to ease fears, not only in Wallonia but in other key countries like Germany and Austria, where CETA critics have warned the agreement would limit countries’ ability to regulate in areas like environmental or labour standards without fear of being sued by foreign corporations.

It’s been rewritten since an earlier leak of a five-page draft, but subsequent versions have not been made public. Some European reports suggest that it now includes a full page of clarifications on the proposed new investment court system. CBC News has not seen the latest draft and cannot confirm this.

Time is running out for the EU to come to an agreement on whether to sign before the planned EU-Canada summit on Oct. 27. 

If Wallonia lifted its objections by Monday, it may still be possible for the EU to complete its necessary procedures in time.

Time running out

A dejected Freeland walked away from the talks on Friday, saying that the EU appeared incapable of signing the deal. The pact was produced two years ago but must be endorsed unanimously.

“I’ve worked very, very hard, but I think it’s impossible,” the minister said, reflecting on the months of travel and lobbying across Europe she’s invested, working in tandem with her EU trade counterpart, Cecilia Malmstrom.

“We have decided to return home. I am very sad. It is emotional for me,” she told reporters. “The only good thing I can say is that tomorrow morning I will be at home with my three kids.”

Belgium won’t sign on to CETA without the support of its regions.

Politicians in Wallonia, which is smaller than New Jersey, argue the proposed deal would undermine labour, environment and consumer standards and allow multinationals to crush local companies.