7 questions as Canada-EU trade deal comes down to the wire

Friday's vote in Wallonia was only the latest sideways move as the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement lurches toward its intended signing date. As the EU's foreign and trade ministers prepare to decide its fate Tuesday, here's a guide to what remains unresolved.

European Union's foreign and trade ministers meet Tuesday to 'decide on signature'

The Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement is scheduled to be signed during an EU-Canada summit in Brussels on Oct. 27-28. That's if nothing derails it. (Francois Mori/Associated Press)

Last week's negative votes in Belgium's Wallonian legislatures set a major hurdle in the path of Canada's trade deal with the European Union.

But Belgium's potential constitutional crisis — should it push on with the deal, consider the regional votes non-binding and sign anyway— is not the only unresolved matter, as the European Union's foreign and trade ministers convene Tuesday morning in Luxembourg.

Their top two agenda items are "decision on signature" and "decision on provisional application" for the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement.

It's go time.

Here's what's unresolved and what to watch for:

Will Belgium sign?

It's been a long weekend for senior European Commission officials, huddled in talks with Belgium's foreign minister, Didier Reynders, and the minister-president of Wallonia, Paul Magnette. 

They were seeking a way to prevent a few million French-speaking Belgians from the country's more rural and less economically prosperous south from effectively vetoing the whole deal.

Belgium's regional legislatures must agree to this kind of treaty. Two didn't.

The solution could take two forms, potentially working in tandem: 

The first would be some kind of a declaration between the EU and Belgium, or between the federal government of Belgium and Wallonia, or maybe both, to address Wallonia's concerns. If the Walloons accepted this, Belgium could sign on with less fear of a constitutional challenge from its regions.

The second way to ease their objections lies in a process already underway: revising the joint interpretative declaration meant to be finalized at Tuesday's meeting.

What's in the declaration?

Canada's CETA negotiators are still in talks with the European Commission to finalize the text of a joint interpretative declaration that does not alter the negotiated text of CETA, but supplements it with some clarifications on contentious issues.

A five-page draft was circulated in Europe and promptly leaked to the media and civil-society groups on Oct. 5.

Consumer rights activists were among tens of thousands of protestors who hit the streets across Germany on Sept. 19. But an attempt to block CETA in Germany's constitutional court failed last week. (Fabian Bimmer/Reuters)

Negotiating this declaration has helped overcome resistance in several countries already. It could be revised again to get Wallonia on board.

More precise linkages between the current CETA text and the new clarifications in the declaration may appear in the final version.

Is the declaration binding?

A key concern expressed by Magnette last week was whether the declaration would have sufficient legal value, given that both Canada and the European Commission are unwilling to reopen the actual text of the agreement.

His words echoed civil-society protest groups like the Council of Canadians, who presented a legal opinion arguing this is political rhetoric, not a legally binding agreement.

But in a contrary opinion shared with CBC News, David Kleimann, a researcher of of EU trade law and policy at the European University Institute, said both the Vienna Convention on the law of treaties and the text of CETA itself leave it "beyond doubt that the declaration carries the same legal quality and weight" and would be applicable in court. 

"Article 30.1 [of CETA] provides that "[t]he protocols, annexes, declarations, joint declarations, understandings and footnotes to this agreement constitute integral parts thereof," he wrote.

The final wording of the interpretative declaration, assuming it's ready for release on Tuesday, will be key.

How will provisional application work?

Along with the decision to proceed with a scheduled signing ceremony on Oct. 27, ministers must decide Tuesday how much of CETA can apply provisionally once the European Parliament holds its ratification vote, possibly early in 2017. 

Full ratification will require votes in 42 national and regional legislatures across Europe (including Wallonia — they'll get a do-over.)

Canadian officials believe over 90 per cent of the deal can be provisionally applied. But there's been little clarity from the EU on what will be carved out, based on both political considerations and jurisdictional law.

Signs point to the investor-state dispute settlement provisions, already renegotiated once, waiting for full ratification.

What about visas?

On the face of it, there's no direct link between CETA and Canada's ongoing dispute with Romania and Bulgaria over visa requirements.

But Romania in particular has said it will not remove its reservation to signing until the visa requirements are lifted.

European Council President Donald Tusk, left, and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, right, will join Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to sign CETA in Brussels next week. Or maybe not, if ministers fail to agree Tuesday to proceed. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Canada may need to make its announcement this week to make sure this doesn't become another stumbling block.

Sources suggest it will happen, but as recently as last Thursday what was thought to be a done deal bogged down again, leaving hard feelings on the Romanian side.

Immigration Minister John McCallum's office will say only that discussions continue.

Is everyone else ready?

Every other cat now seems herded. It wasn't easy.

After a long campaign to win over centre-left politicians and trade unions, a key constitutional court decision in Germany was critics' last chance to block the deal.

On Thursday, it failed.

Austria had committed to follow suit.

Late last week it confirmed it too would sign CETA — despite a clear lack of enthusiasm from its chancellor, who said Friday that trade with Switzerland was more important.

CETA has objectors across Europe. Their best hope now is rallying a majority in the unpredictable European Parliament to vote against.

What about compensation here?

In Canada, some industries worry about what this deal brings.

Fish processors, who believe CETA's removal of minimum fish processing requirements will cost jobs in Newfoundland and Labrador, are looking for the federal government to provide compensation. There's been no announcement yet.

Dairy farmers, who lose a slice of the Canadian cheese market to European imports, are also in talks about compensation.

The automotive sector, among others, also risks losses because of new European imports.

Other Canadian businesses desperately want CETA implemented.

In a letter this weekend, the Canada Europe Roundtable for Business urged Magnette's government to reconsider, saying it would be "particularly disappointing" if Belgium was "responsible for the failure of the highest quality, and most progressive, trade agreement that both Europe and Canada have ever negotiated."


Janyce McGregor

Senior reporter

Janyce McGregor joined the CBC's parliamentary bureau in 2001, after starting her career with TVOntario's Studio 2. Her public broadcaster "hat trick" includes casual stints as a news and current affairs producer with the BBC's World Service in London. After two decades of producing roles, she's now a senior reporter filing for CBC Online, Radio and Television. News tips: Janyce.McGregor@cbc.ca