BRUSSELS: Canada turned up the heat on the European Union Saturday, saying it was the bloc’s “job” to save a trade pact thrown into doubt by a Belgian region’s refusal to sign on.
Chrystia Freeland, the Canadian trade minister, struck a firm tone after leaving last-ditch talks with European parliament head Martin Schulz aimed at salvaging the proposed accord that was seven years in the making.
“Now the ball is in Europe’s court and it’s time for Europe to finish doing its job,” Freeland said, adding that she was returning to Canada on Saturday but still hoped to be able to come back on October 27 and sign the agreement.
Brussels meanwhile scrambled to resolve the impasse as Schulz also had an eleventh-hour huddle with Paul Magnette, head of the Wallonia region’s socialist government which is blocking the agreement between Ottawa and the 28-nation bloc.
Afterwards both sides admitted the sticking points are related to “problems within the European Union,” said Schulz.
“We still have some difficulties between Europeans,” Magnette said while adding that “the discussions we have had together have been very useful”.
According to the Walloon leader’s aides, Magnette is now waiting for a statement from the European Commission which directly addresses the Belgian francophone region’s concerns about the trade deal.
A European diplomat said that during the meeting the Commission indicated it was ready to help Belgium find a solution and stressed that a way out must be found as quickly as possible “for Europe’s international credibility”.
The pact with Canada known as the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) would link the EU market of 500 million people with the world’s tenth biggest economy.
‘Not for sale’
The accord was initially scheduled to be signed next Thursday with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Brussels — and Schulz insisted that date remained in the diary.
On Friday, Canada blasted the EU as “incapable of having an international agreement”, as talks to persuade Wallonia broke down.
Freeland’s comments fed into warnings that the EU, beset by rising anti-globalisation sentiment, may never be able to land any other deals — including one with the United States.
The Walloon parliament refused earlier this week to let the Belgian government approve the deal between Canada and the European Union, which needs to be backed by all 28 EU member states.
The CETA is opposed by anti-globalisation groups who say it is a test model to push through an even more controversial EU-US trade deal called TTIP, talks on which have also stalled.
And Wallonia has some support around Europe.
On Saturday, 8,000 people including young people, farmers, union leaders and entrepreneurs joined a rally in Amsterdam in a show of solidarity, organisers said. They held banners saying “Our world is not for sale” and “Stop these bad trade treaties”.
More time needed?
Wallonia’s government chief Magnette told AFP on Friday that his Belgian region needed more time but that there was still scope for an agreement.
“Democracy takes a little time,” Magnette said. “I wasn’t asking for months, but you can’t carry out a parliamentary process in two days.”
He singled out a highly controversial investment protection scheme buried in the deal that has drawn the fury of activists.
The response of the Commission, the EU’s executive arm, to Wallonia’s concerns must then be submitted to the region’s parliament.
Wallonia has also enjoyed support from activist groups like Greenpeace which charged that the deal risked satisfying “corporate greed” and trampling on people’s rights and health standards on both sides of the Atlantic.
British Prime Minister Theresa May on Friday dismissed warnings that the EU-Canada deal raised serious questions about whether London could strike a similar agreement after Brexit.