Politico | 18 Oct 2016
Defiant Wallonia rejects deadline to save EU-Canada deal
CETA has become a litmus test of whether the European Commission can wield power over trade deals.
By HANS VON DER BURCHARD and CHRISTIAN OLIVER
Wallonia’s Minister-President Paul Magnette has dealt a potentially fatal blow to EU trade policy by insisting that he will not support the EU’s landmark trade deal with Canada by a Friday deadline.
The European Commission has cast Friday’s summit of European leaders in Brussels as a make-or-break moment to salvage the credibility of the EU trade agenda by securing unanimous approval for the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement between Brussels and Ottawa.
Belgium can’t sign up to the deal without the consent of its regional parliaments, including two hostile Walloon assembliesthat have voted against CETA.
A meeting of trade ministers in Luxembourg on Tuesday led to no progress, and European Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström stressed that time was running out to build consensus before the EU hopes to wrap up the deal with Canada at a summit on October 27.
Magnette vowed that he would not surrender despite the mounting pressure upon him to give ground before Friday’s European Council summit.
“There are still too many problems to strike an agreement by Friday,” Magnette told an emergency meeting of the European affairs committee of the Walloon parliament Tuesday evening. “The democratic process must go the distance, right to the end,” he was quoted as saying by Belgian media.
The CETA deal has become a litmus test of whether the European Commission is still able to wield its ultimate power over negotiating trade deals.
Council President Donald Tusk agreed that the summit would prove critical. “At the European Council we have a special responsibility regarding the agreement with Canada,” he wrote Tuesday in a letter ahead of the summit. “There is still work to be done, but I hope we will find a way forward.”
Italy’s trade minister Carlo Calenda gave a withering assessment of the EU, saying that it should never have allowed CETA to be classed as a “mixed agreement,” requiring approval in 38 national and regional parliaments. “The meeting was a waste of time,” he said of the ministerial session in Luxembourg.
He added that Italy “was the only country that sent a letter to the Commission stating that we authorize [CETA] to be an EU-only competence. To give an example I said that the Walloon parliament could have rejected the deal. Now, I don’t know if I brought bad luck or if I was prescient, but the fact is that today the situation is really hard to predict.”
Walloon politicians have expressed wide concerns about CETA, saying that it could undermine health, labor and environmental standards as well as provide U.S. companies with a platform to sue European governments.
“We’re waging a difficult battle,” Magnette said earlier this week. “In Wallonia, we are facing pressure on a whole range of fronts, sometimes even scarcely veiled threats. And yet, we continue to hold our course.”
German Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel, who had to burn heavy political capital to win domestic support for the accord, also vented his frustration. “It would be a huge mistake to not approve this deal,” he warned.
Although Romania and Bulgaria also blocked CETA at Tuesday’s minister meeting, their reservations were tied to a visa dispute with Canada and a solution “is within reach,” Romanian EU ambassador Luminiţa Odobescu said Tuesday.
Diplomatic sources said that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has hinted at resolving the visa dispute as soon as Belgium unblocks the trade deal.
Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders, whose federal government strongly supports CETA, warned Tuesday that the stalemate could not only damage Belgium’s role in Europe, but also cause “internal consequences.”
Politicians and businessmen from the northern Belgian region of Flanders, which provides the majority of the country’s exports and whose ports hope to boost their turnover through the Canada deal, reacted with outrage over the Walloon veto.
Do or die
Reynders added that even if Belgium finds a way to approve CETA in the coming days, the national and regional governments would retain their right to shoot down the deal later during the national ratification phase.
“Even if the text is approved by all national parliaments in the 28 member states, one regional parliament in Belgium still retains the opportunity to completely block” the agreement, he said.
That is a grim scenario for Malmström, who initially wanted to pass CETA as an EU-only agreement but backtracked after heavy pressure from national governments.
“I think we need to sit down all of us after this is done and to discuss how trade policy should be made in the future,” she said.
Simon Marks and Carmen Paun contributed reporting.