LUXEMBOURG — The leader of a small Belgian region who holds the key to the approval of a wide-ranging trade deal between the 28-nation European Union and Canada said he will need a few more days to study new proposals aimed at overcoming his objections.
Instead of EU approval on Tuesday, as first planned, the issue could well go to a two-day summit of government leaders starting Thursday.
Under the EU’s complicated approval system, the fate of the trans-Atlantic deal depends on all regions in Belgium approving the deal, leaving some local governments representing only a few million people with the power to scuttle a deal affecting over 500 million EU citizens and 35 million Canadians.
Belgium’s national government, which strongly backs the deal, in consultation with EU officials, has been frantically looking to overturn the resistance by Wallonia, population 3.5 million, and the executive office of the capital, Brussels, to save a deal that took seven years to negotiate and has backing from all the other EU nations.
Wallonia’s Minister-President Paul Magnette told the RTL network he was studying new proposals to bring his region in line with the other nations.
“I want to be constructive. If we are heard, if they put the bar higher and if they protect our social and environmental norms and our farmers, sure we will be happy to say we found a solution,” Magnette said.
Tuesday’s initial deadline for the so-called Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement was slipping fast out of reach. “It will be tough to do before tomorrow morning. We will need a few more days,” he said.
International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters in Ottawa said she remained “cautiously optimistic” about the deal. “But at this point the ball is very much in the European court.”
“We’re working hard with the Europeans … Everyone I talked to today said: ‘Hang on in there, we believe this is going to happen.'”
Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders said ahead of Tuesday’s meeting of EU foreign trade ministers that “the end of the week during the summit of EU leaders” looked likely to resolve the issue. The main discussion points at this week’s summit are Britain’s exit from the EU and relations with Russia.
Late next week, on Oct. 27, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is set to fly to Brussels to sign the CETA agreement, but only if it has unanimous backing from all the EU nations.
The deal is expected to 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 strong safeguards on social, environmental and labor legislation which have given Europe some of the toughest standards in the world.
Wallonia said last Friday that the guarantees were not good enough and urged more negotiations. Those concerns have now been talked about over the weekend and into Monday.
“There is always progress,” Reynders said of the talks, “but we have to make sure that progress leads to a deal.”