BRUSSELS—The Belgian government says that it cannot yet give the necessary backing to the European Union’s free trade deal with Canada, making it unlikely that the bloc can sign the deal officially on Thursday as planned.
Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said Monday that EU leaders and Canada had asked for a clear commitment on Oct. 24, “and the clear answer, at this stage, is no.”
It left it open to what extent the EU and Belgium could continue negotiating CETA over the next days and weeks with the southern Belgian region of Wallonia, which needs to approve the deal before it can become official. The deal needs unanimity among the 28 EU nations and Belgium is the only approval lacking since it needs the backing of all its regions.
The EU’s executive called for patience in an attempt to save a free trade deal and had already dismissed a Monday night deadline as counterproductive.
The EU and Canada want to sign the deal at a summit on Thursday in Brussels, for which Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would fly in. But the meeting will be cancelled if the Belgian region of Wallonia, the lone holdout, withholds its approval.
On Monday, Wallonia President Paul Magnette insisted he would agree to nothing under the threat of an ultimatum.
“Each time they put forward such an ultimatum it makes a serene discussion and a democratic debate impossible,” Magnette said.
As Thursday’s summit draws near, pressure has increased on Wallonia, population 3.5 million, to drop its objections over a deal covering over 500 million EU citizens and 35 million Canadians.
The EU Commission, which has negotiated the CETA deal on behalf of the 28 nations, insisted that this week’s summit was not the final deadline.
“Now, we need patience,” said EU Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas. “The Commission traditionally does not set deadlines or ultimatums.”
Andre Antoine, the head of the Wallonia legislature, said on RTL network that “no, it will not be possible” to back the deal on Monday, arguing there are too many outstanding issues.
Even if Thursday’s EU-Canada summit has to be called off, it could always be rescheduled when Wallonia has signed on to the agreement, Schinas indicated.
Over the past week, Belgium missed two deadlines to agree to the deal and Canada briefly walked out of the trade talks before returning the next day.
EU officials said that without guarantees that the EU is ready to finalize the deal, there would be no reason to have a summit on Thursday with Trudeau.
Politicians in Wallonia, which is smaller than the U.S. state of New Jersey, argue that the proposed CETA accord _ short for Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement _ would undermine labour, environment and consumer standards.
“And we do not want private arbitration in which multinationals can attack nations, Magnette said.
Magnette said Wallonia still saw many difficulties and said a better deal would bolster EU standards and set a strong precedent for future trade talks between Europe and trading partners like the United States or Japan.