AFP Namur, Belgium
Belgium’s Wallonia region yesterday approved a landmark EU-Canada free trade agreement after marathon talks produced a compromise, clearing the way for the European Union to sign the pact.
By 58 votes to five, parliament in Namur, south of Brussels, became the first of the country’s three French-speaking communities to back changes made to allay fears local interests could be harmed by one of the biggest ever trade deals. Its approval, after nearly four hours of debate, suggests the other regions will also back the deal.
This in turn will allow the Belgian government to give the European Union its blessing to go ahead with the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement (CETA).
CETA requires all 28 EU member states to endorse it before it can be signed and then ratified by their parliaments and in some cases – as in Belgium – by their regional governments.
Wallonia head Paul Magnette told the Namur parliament that the changes agreed offered more guarantees that local interests would be properly protected. “CETA amended, CETA corrected; that is fairer than the former CETA and offers more guarantees and that is what I put to you,” Magnette said.
CETA will link the EU’s single market of 500mn people – the world’s biggest – with Canada’s 10th largest global economy in what would be the most ambitious tie-up of its kind.
The EU had been due to sign CETA at a summit on Thursday in Brussels with Canadian Premier Justin Trudeau but that was called off as his Belgian counterpart Charles Michel tried to win the holdout regions’ backing.
“This is an important agreement that is on the table,” Michel said after the talks on Thursday.
Under complex constitutional arrangements, Michel needed all of Belgium’s regional governments to back the deal before he could sign up.
CETA took seven years to negotiate to 2014 and another two years to go through the EU’s institutions before it ran into the Belgian roadblock. Once signed, the pact will go into effect on a provisional basis, pending full member state ratification.
The stakes have been high as Belgium had become a lighting rod for warnings that the EU’s international standing, already battered by Britain’s shock June Brexit vote, would suffer further if the huge, long-planned deal with Canada got scuppered.
Hinging on CETA’s outcome are complex EU trade negotiations with other countries, including an even bigger and more controversial deal with the United States known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).
In his speech to parliament, Magnette warned that Wallonia would never accept a trade treaty that does not have the same guarantees as those in the new CETA.
In the CETA talks, Magnette had fought for Wallonia’s farming interests and for guarantees against international investors forcing governments to change laws against the wishes of the people.
The accord is being vetted by the remaining 27 EU member states and institutions as well as by other Belgian regional governments which Michel said have pledged to give their answer before midnight (2200 GMT) yesterday.
Wallonia was the first to weigh in, followed by the mainly French-speaking Brussels parliament, which the Belga news agency said voted 60 to 16 in favour of the compromise.
The only other holdout still to vote is the Belgian French-speaking community.
With the remaining political hurdles hopefully cleared, Tusk may be free to phone Trudeau on Saturday to discuss the next steps, including possibly a signing ceremony, an EU source told AFP.
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