EU-Canada trade deal faces final hurdles
By Eszter Zalan
Officials in Brussels are holding their breath over the fate of the Canada-EU trade agreement (Ceta), which diplomats say will decide the EU's future trade policy.
On Thursday (13 October) Germany's consitutional court is expected to rule on the legality of the agreement after three German NGOs presented a lawsuit in August signed by 125,000 people.
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They said the deal would undermine workers' rights and worsen consumer standards.
German economy minister Sigmar Gabriel, who last month secured the support of his restive Social Democratic Party (SPD) for the deal, warned on Wednesday that if the court rules in favour of the petitioners, "it would be a disaster for Europe."
An unexpected obstacle could also come from Belgium.
On Friday (14 October), the parliament of the Wallonia region will decide its stance on Ceta. Although the Belgian federal government has the final say on the deal, it needs the accord of its regions.
"We are in touch with our Belgian counterparts ... I don’t even try to understand fully what is going in all the parliaments in Belgium," said a senior EU diplomat.
According to EU rules, if member states disagree, then Ceta could be put to a vote by qualified majority in the EU Council.
Belgium could then be outvoted, but several officials told this website that because of the sensitivity of the issue, a unanimous decision would be needed.
Another issue that could upset the Ceta deal is Canada's visa requirements for Bulgarian and Romanian citizens.
Bulgaria and Canada have reached a political agreement on the issue, with a gradual lifting of visa requirements for Bulgarian citizens.
According to Bulgarian government sources quoted by Reuters, Canada will introduce a visa waiver for some Bulgarians, for example, for businessmen, for prior visitors to Canada, or for holders of a US visa as of May 2017 and will work to allow visa-free travel for all by the end of next year.
The timeline for the full visa liberalisation could be extended to May 2018, Bulgarian officials told Reuters.
It means Bulgaria would most likely give up its reluctance to back the Ceta agreement.
Talks with Romania are still ongoing. According to sources in Brussels, Bucharest would like to see visa-free travel for all its citizens without time limits.
"Canada remains committed to working collaboratively with Romania, Bulgaria, and the EU towards our mutual goal of visa-free travel between the EU member states and Canada," a statement by the Canadian representation to the EU said,
"It would be premature to comment on next steps at this time," it added.
Canada also pointed out that "Ceta remains a top priority", but recalled that "visa policy is not part of any of Canada’ s free trade agreements, and decisions on whether or not visas are necessary do not relate to trade."
EU officials hope all obstacles will be cleared in time for an EU-Canada summit to be held on 27 October, when prime minister Justin Trudeau travels to Brussels.
Ceta has become a crucial issue as the EU, after Brexit, wants to retain its position as a credible, global partner.
The EU is ready to go.
Trade ministers are planned to have an extraordinary meeting next Tuesday (18 October), where member states could sign off the agreement, which would then need to be ratified at national level.
"The negotiation work in Brussels is completed, we need a political green light from capitals," said the senior EU diplomat.
"It is a high a priority file for us, it is modern, important, a good agreement for the EU. By signing it, we can also show there is life in the EU trade policy," the diplomat said.
EU ambassadors on Wednesday "stabilised" all the texts needed for ratification. For the first time in trade deals, they agreed on a "joint interpretative declaration" clarifying the text of the agreement.
They also agreed on the details of its provisional application. That means, for example, that a controversial investment settlement court would not be created until member states had completed their national ratification process.
The European Parliament is ready to ratify it in its January 2017 plenary session at the latest.
The parliament's political groups agreed on Wednesday that the trade committe would vote on it on 5 December.
"It's not ideal, but in many way, it's the best and I would say very close to perfection," said the Ceta rapporteur, Artis Pabriks, a Latvian member of the centre-right EPP group.