Politics·Analysis

CETA: After 3 missed deadlines, why isn't the Canada-EU summit cancelled?

International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland's explanations Monday seemed to be building toward a logical conclusion: Justin Trudeau isn't getting on a plane to Brussels this week. But she didn't actually say that. Why not?

Neither side wants to halt momentum toward signing CETA, even if it doesn't happen this week

Three deadlines have come and gone for Belgium to approve its signature on the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement at the ceremony originally planned for Thursday. Why hasn't it been called off yet? (Eric Vidal/Reuters)

International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland's explanations yesterday seemed to be building toward a logical conclusion: Justin Trudeau isn't getting on a plane to Brussels this week to sign Canada's trade deal with the European Union.

Except she didn't actually say that.

And she didn't say it today, either, when she again spoke to reporters.

Three deadlines for the EU to confirm all member states are ready to sign have come and gone over the last week. Why not just state the obvious?

Back in Ottawa Monday, Freeland looked more composed than she appeared last Friday in Wallonia when the decision was made — not by her alone — to walk away, signaling enough is enough: Canada is done negotiating the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA).

While it hasn't been made public yet, Canada also had finished negotiating an annex to the deal, a joint interpretative declaration that was supposed to clarify everyone's way around remaining roadblocks.

Steve Verheul, the veteran trade bureaucrat who's served as the chief negotiator with Europe under both the Conservatives and Liberals, stood just to Freeland's right Monday.

His face didn't reveal whether Canada is holding a winning hand. But Freeland's voice was firm.

"This was a tough move by Canada, but it was a decision taken carefully," the minister read from prepared remarks.

"To the Conservatives who've criticized walking away, they know it was the right move."

International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland says that CETA isn't dead yet, but that the ball is now in the Europeans' court. 0:58

Freeland faced criticism for saying she was sad and emotional as she walked away from talks with Wallonia. She also talked about wanting to see her kids. 

Conservatives slammed Freeland as a player giving up at the 10-yard line — disregarding the tenacious charm-offensive she'd waged across Europe for months.

They ignored the Liberal rebuttal the deal was stalled when they took office because the Stephen Harper's government wasn't open to renegotiation.

Conservative trade critic Gerry Ritz said the minister needed "adult supervision." Freeland is having none of that.

International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland responds to attacks from Conservative MP Gerry Ritz who said she needs adult supervision to get the CETA deal done. 1:11

If Trudeau replaced Freeland and went over without a deal in hand, wouldn't that seem desperate?

His interventions, alternately warning the EU while staying optimistic about CETA's chances, have been lobbed from back in Canada.

Phoney deadlines fail

The ball is in Europe's court, Freeland said Tuesday. It's a now-familiar line.

The head of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, asked her to be part of last week's arm-twisting, feeling Walloons should hear directly from Canada.

But Canada was contradicting itself, saying things were Europe's to fix, while directly engaged with Wallonia.

Until Freeland walked, it gave the impression something could change. 

International Trade Minister has walked out of free trade negotiations with the European Union. "I worked very hard. But I think it's impossible." 1:33

Meanwhile, EU trade watchers mock the setting of phoney deadlines for approving signature.

That strategy was not Canada's — Trudeau's government wasn't apt to speak publicly about the Oct. 27 summit plans. 

As Tuesday's meeting of trade ministers, then Friday's talks between heads of state, and finally Monday's talks between​ Belgium's regional governments all failed to find consensus, the EU did what it does: it kept talking, rather than face a humiliation of the European Commission's trade ambitions.

Nobody likes the word ultimatum.

Freeland's EU counterpart, Cecilia Malmstrom, said over a week ago that the only real deadline would be the point at which Trudeau needed to be on a plane. How prescient that now seems.

More patience needed

Nothing is lost — no trade agreement is dead — while talk continues. 

That explains why the president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, responded to Freeland's exit last Friday by proposing last-minute talks between the Canadian minister and Walloon President Paul Magnette.

But he wasn't in a position to renegotiate anything.

Schulz, the equivalent of a Speaker, is a German social democrat.

His party searched its political soul over CETA, supporting it only after securing an earlier rewrite of the investor-state dispute settlement clauses and more recent clarifications on controversial measures.

He's pivotal to the deal's next step, assuming it comes: guiding CETA through a review-and-ratification vote by members of the European Parliament.

Should he succeed in herding a majority of those unpredictable cats, it could boost his personal ambition to run against Angela Merkel for German chancellor next year. 

But his conversations with Freeland and Magnette last Saturday just needed to change headlines from "talks collapse" to "hope remains."

Schulz has told a German interviewer that the summit may need to be postponed. Was he pre-positioning?

Canada's CETA envoy, Pierre Pettigrew, discusses the stalled Canada-EU trade deal. 8:26

Will Wallonia come around?

Canadians, from Freeland on down, insist things are still moving forward.

By some reports, Magnette's brinkmanship has gone from setting nine conditions, to four. A declaration unique to Wallonia's concerns might emerge. A report Tuesday evening said only one issue now remains.

This latest Belgian compromise may have required education, not renegotiation.

Juliette Boulet, a Wallonian activist and Greenpeace spokesperson, discusses her opposition to the Canada-EU trade deal 8:08

For example, Walloons want domestic courts to resolve investor disputes. But existing text may already provide that option.

Walloons are sensitive to the charge that they waited until the last minute to put this spanner in the works. Magnette told French newspaper Liberation that the region voiced objections over a year ago, but the EU only started to listen this month. 

An anti-CETA vote last April previewed this de facto veto, but those tasked with assuaging Wallonia — French socialists and Freeland's parliamentary secretary David Lametti among them — seem to have misjudged that it wouldn't get to this point.

'I want an agreement'

Magnette's determination to be heard won praise from civil society groups and unions, including the Council of Canadians, who've organized protests and counter-lobbying for months.

Those campaigners may yet be disappointed.

After a steady march toward globalization, trade deals like NAFTA, CETA and TPP are under fire 2:58

"I am not a herald of the global justice movement. I want an agreement," Magnette told Liberation.

If he ultimately feels that way, why wait?

That's why Freeland's statement — and Trudeau's official conversation with European President Donald Tusk — didn't conclude by postponing his trip to Brussels.

Bags remain packed. The Belgians are still talking.

About the Author

Janyce McGregor

Parliamentary Bureau

Janyce McGregor has covered Canadian politics for CBC News since 2001. Send news tips to: Janyce.McGregor@cbc.ca

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