Wallonia still refuses to buy Ceta 'cat in a bag'
By Eric Maurice
Wallonia was, on Friday morning (21 October), still resisting pressure to back the EU-Canada trade deal.
"Difficulties remain, especially on a symbolic and extremely important politically issue: the settlement mechanism," the Belgian region's leader Paul Magnette told the Walloon parliament.
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Magnette was addressing MPs after a meeting in Namur with Canada's international trade minister Chrystia Freedland and the former EU negotiator for the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) Mauro Petriccione.
The talks are about a declaration that will be added to the agreement, to explain some of its elements, such as agriculture policy; labour; environmental or data privacy standards; or the investor settlement mechanism.
"The mechanism is not described with precision," Magnette said. "It's like buying a cat in a bag."
The parliament was still debating by early Friday afternoon, before voting to decide whether to back Ceta.
Wallonia's backing is needed to allow Belgium's federal government to approve the deal, along with other EU member states.
The parliament's speaker Andre Antoine said the talks involved "an interpretative declaration, a joint interpretative instrument, letters, bilateral declarations".
"We have the right to know the impact of each of these texts," he said.
Magnette said that the Friday morning talks went "with great courtesy and open spirit, but not much margin on the calendar."
He admitted that he had failed to convince the EU and Canada to postpone next week's summit to formally sign the deal.
He also told deputies that the question was what Wallonia should do if he could not "obtain more than a declaration that is not binding" and if no further details were given about how the settlement mechanism will work.
The direct discussions between Wallonia, a region, with a non-EU member state about an international trade agreement - normally an exclusive power of the European Commission - is a very unusual situation.
A proposal put forward by the European Commission, and meeting with ambassadors, still failed to change Magnette's stance by Thursday evening.
It also takes place in parallel to a summit in Brussels where EU leaders are discussing the bloc's trade policy.
But leaders are not part of the talks, an EU official said, "they can only facilitate them by creating a space to find a solution."
A meeting of EU ambassadors will take place after Wallonia has made its decision.
Belgian prime minister Charles Michel has said he has no way to act on Wallonia, according to a diplomat, who told EUobserver that Michel gave a "hopeless signal" to his colleagues.
On Friday morning he said he'd "spent the night trying to find formulas, solutions," including talking directly to the Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau.
But was "not reassured" by the "radicalisation of the Walloon government."
Michel, a liberal, heads a coalition government that does not include Paul Magnette's party, the French-speaking socialists, that is ruling in Wallonia.
Magnette's stance is "more theater than substance," an EU official said on Friday.
The Walloon leader replied to critics, telling deputies that what they were doing was "a model of democratic work."
"The debate is about which globalisation we want," he said.
But in the Walloon parliament debate, a fellow socialist deputy said that the region's leader had "obtained more in two weeks than the federal government in two years."