Belgium gets Friday deadline on Canada trade
By Eszter Zalan
Belgium has until Friday to agree to the Canada-EU trade deal (Ceta), as it remained the key obstacle to the signing of the accord after trade ministers on Tuesday (18 October) failed to sign off the agreement.
Belgium's French-speaking region, Wallonia, has blocked the federal government to agree the accord, due to be signed with Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau in Brussels next Thursday.
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"All but one member state is on board on substance," Slovak economy minister Peter Ziga, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the EU, said after the meeting.
Wallonia's reluctance to agree to the deal has become the major sticking point in concluding the deal, putting the EU's credibility on trade issues on the line.
"It's up to the EU summit to settle the final reservations," Ziga said.
"The good news is that we are moving toward that goal [signing the agreement]. It's not a sprint, and not a marathon, something in between," added Ziga about the talks with Belgium.
"Twenty seven and a half member states accepted the agreement," an EU official quipped in the margins of the meeting.
An EU official said Belgium's foreign minister Didier Reynders told his colleagues during the talks that he needed the next few days to fix the problem.
Wallonia's concerns would most likely be addressed in a joint declaration, a text clarifying the trade deal, or in other informal protocols, according to officials. Officials also said Reynders did not go into details at the meeting how he thinks Wallonia's concerns could be accommodated, however.
The commission is working with the Belgian and Walloon authorities to find a solution, which then would be politically endorsed by EU leaders at the summit, and agreed by the EU Council in a fast-track procedure.
"Reynders sounded reasonably optimistic," said a source, adding that the 27 fellow ministers were also optimistic the deal can be signed before prime minster Trudeau gets on the airplane next week.
However annoyed EU officials and national diplomats might be with Belgium's last-minute jitters, an official said no member state had threatened Belgium during the discussions.
"I can't imagine that the final stumbling block would be Belgium," said Ziga, and praised the country as one of the EU's founding members.
Several EU countries - including Spain, Poland, and the Czech Republic - pointed out that the bloc's credibility was at risk.
"It is about the credibility of the EU to conduct trade deals," EU trade commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem also told press after the meeting. Ziga hinted that if the deal failed the question arose whether it was worth having a common trade policy.
The difficult birth of Ceta also raised concerns that a future trade deal between the EU and the UK would be equally hard to reach.
"If we can't make a deal with Canada, I don't think we can make it with the UK," the trade commissioner said.
Bulgaria and Romania also maintain reservations on the Canada accord, as they would like to see written guarantees that their citizens would be able to travel visa-free to Canada. According to an EU diplomat, that issue should be solved in the next few days and the two countries will not block the deal.
Bulgaria and Romania said at Tuesday's council that they were content with Ceta, another EU official said.
According to the official, the two countries reached an oral agreement with Canada on the visa issue, but they would not formally lift their reservations until they get written guarantees.
German concerns have also been addressed in a unilateral declaration on Cetan after the constitutional court in Germany gave the go ahead for the deal last week.
The German reservations were based on the court's ruling.
The Karlsruhe court said that the provisional application of the Ceta can only apply within the competencies of the EU, and that Germany can unilaterally terminate the provisional application.
Officials said the goal is to tie up the deal before EU leaders gathered in Brussels for a summit on Thursday afternoon.
"God knows what happens tomorrow," said the source.
For now, a draft conclusion of the summit, seen by this website, says in brackets: "It welcomes the decision to sign and provisionally apply the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, and calls for the European Parliament promptly to give its consent."