The Belgium Parliament is in an emergency session over a collapsed Trade Agreement between the EU and Canada.
The agreement, called CETA was five years in the making and has spent another 2 years seeking EU ratification. It is held up because a portion of Belgium will not go along.
EU leaders warned that critical discussions in Brussels on Friday could determine the fate of Europe’s trade policy as they stepped up frantic efforts to persuade a regional parliament in Belgium to lift its veto on a deal with Canada.
Charles Michel, Belgium’s prime minister, said he was “not reassured” by emergency talks overnight with the leaders of his country’s Walloon region and Justin Trudeau, his Canadian counterpart.
Arriving at the second day of an EU summit in Brussels, Mr Michel said talks in the pre-dawn hours had left him “feeling that there is a radicalisation in the position of the Wallonian parliament”.
The stalled Canadian deal, known as Ceta, was supposed to set new standards for global trade. But its increasing risk of collapse, because Belgium cannot sign the treaty without regional support, threatens to sink EU trade policy by calling into question the bloc’s capacity to conclude future agreements with other partners.
The impasse over Ceta has propelled the concerns of Wallonia, a region of Belgium with a population of about 3.5m people, to the top of Europe’s political agenda. Incessant Belgian wrangling over the agreement, which is due to be formally signed at ceremonies with Canada next week, overshadowed a regular two-day meeting of EU leaders that began on Thursday evening in Brussels.
The turmoil over Ceta has damaged the EU’s credibility as a trade negotiator. The agreement is supported by the governments of all 28 member states, including that of Belgium, which cannot sign without Wallonia’s blessing. MPs in the local parliament have passed a succession of votes against the pact in light of concerns about globalisation, new trade courts, social rights and environmental regulation.
The EU and Canada struck the Ceta deal two years ago, after five years of negotiations. Days before the pact is to due be signed, Mr Magnette is engaged in direct talks with Chrystia Freeland, Canadian trade minister.
The parliament was sitting in emergency session on Friday morning after Paul Magnette, chief of the regional government, rejected a new document clarifying the most contentious terms of the Ceta late on Thursday night.
Other EU leaders have so far sought to keep their frustration with the impasse in check, but it is not clear if that patience will hold should Wallonia continue to block the deal.
“At this stage, for us, the document is not sufficient,” Mr Magnette told reporters on Thursday night. “We’ll see how we can modify the text that we were given.”
The battle to rescue Ceta has raised questions about Europe’s capacity to conclude any new trade deals. As the EU summit began on Thursday, European Council president Donald Tusk said Ceta “could be our last free-trade agreement” if the deal founders.
Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, said Ceta was the EU’s “best” trade deal. “If we will be unable to conclude a trade arrangement with Canada, I don’t see how it would be possible to have trade agreements with other parts of this world.”
Waylaid by Walloons
The EU-Canada trade pact is Waylaid by Walloons
Elio Di Rupo, the Belgian Socialist leader, is being cast as the man who could scupper European trade policy as Brussels struggles to salvage a trade pact with Canada that was supposed to set a benchmark for the world.
Trade officials see the bow-tied Mr Di Rupo, who was prime minister of Belgium between 2011 and 2014, as the driving force behind regional resistance to the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement that threatens to pull it apart.
Mr Di Rupo’s Socialist party holds sway in the restive parliament of the French-speaking Walloon region, whose blessing is required for Belgium’s pro-trade government to sign Ceta. Another Walloon vote against the pact came on Friday despite frantic political efforts to appease the objectors. An attempt to break the logjam will resume this week.
The deal’s supporters have Mr Di Rupo firmly in their sights, drawing caustic comparisons with the Franco-Belgian cartoon character Asterix, a tireless warrior against Roman overlords. “It’s like he’s defending the last Gaullist village against the onset of the Roman empire,” said a senior trade official.
This is precisely what happens when all 27 nations have to agree to a deal. In this case, a portion of one nation will not go along.
Such madness is yet another example why the UK is better off outside of the EU.
Mike “Mish” Shedlock