EU sent 'wrong signal' on trade during CETA talks, says German ambassador

The Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement is on the cusp of a signing, but Germany's ambassador to Canada says the EU has some serious lessons to learn from Wallonia's "rather unnecessary" last-minute obstacles.

Werner Wnendt says the European Union has to deal with the consequences of CETA moving forward

A banner against CETA is displayed in front of the Walloon parliament in Namur, Belgium, on Friday. The European Union and Canada are closing in on a landmark free trade deal after Belgium cleared internal political opposition to the agreement. (Thierry Monasse/Associated Press)

The European Union is expected to host Prime Minister Justin Trudeau this weekend to sign the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, but Germany's ambassador to Canada says the EU has some serious lessons to learn from the "rather unnecessary" last-minute obstacles placed by Belgium's Wallonia region.

"This was the wrong signal sent by the European Union," Werner Wnendt told host Chris Hall in an interview for CBC Radio's The House.

"The lesson cannot be that we want no more trade agreements. This is an excellent agreement. It's the best agreement the European Union has ever negotiated with an advanced economy.… If the European Union can't conclude such an agreement with Canada, with who else?"

Werner Wnendt, Germany's ambassador to Canada, says the European Union sent the wrong signal on trade this week when Belgium's Wallonia voted to reject the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement. (Mike DePaul/CBC)

Wnendt said the sputtering talks on CETA could send a message to the world that the EU isn't a credible negotiator, a harmful image given their current talks with the U.S. on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

It's a sentiment shared by another high-ranking German: European Parliament Vice-President Alexander Lambsdorff has said Wallonia's foot-dragging is an embarrassment and could harm the EU's ability to negotiate future deals.

"The European Union has shown itself to be an impossible international negotiating partner with this wrong whole process," Lambsdorff told broadcaster Deutschlandfunk earlier this month.

Belgium could have moved faster: Wnendt

Originally, Trudeau was planning to go to Europe on Thursday, but Wallonia had been blocking Belgium's approval of the agreement until a compromise was finally reached.

On Friday morning, the minister-president of the region, Paul Magnette, presented the amended version to Walloon MPs, saying the changes guaranteed the "highest level" of standards in social, environmental or agricultural norms, despite the deal's "flaws."

Wnendt said it was a game of European politics and wasn't actually about ending a trade deal with Canada. 

"This is now the European Union that has to deal with the consequences of this and how to change the decision-making processes in the European Union, or adapt it, adjust it, in a way that this cannot happen," said Wnendt.

Wallonia Minister-President Paul Magnette leaves a meeting on the planned EU-Canada free trade agreement, at the Lambermont Residence in Brussels on Thursday. (Yves Herman/Reuters)

The ambassador said Belgium should have dealt with Wallonia's concerns earlier, the way Germany did with its internal objections.

"I think that there could have been an opportunity way before the actual summit meeting date that this could have been sorted out," he said. "It was probably waiting too long to discuss it with Wallonia in that case."

Anti-globalization needs to be taken 'seriously'

Wnendt said there's a need to develop a better way to handle mixed agreements, where both the European Union members and subnational governments are involved.

"That was probably a mistake that was made at the very beginning on the European Union side of the negotiations, that it wasn't seen that there was such interest among people and that people from the very beginning onwards they wanted to know what was going on," he said.

After the deal is signed, CETA still needs to be ratified by each of the EU's 28 member states as well as some regions. There are still political roadblocks and the anti-globalization movement shows no sign of abating.

"People are afraid that globalization means for them that they lose. They lose their jobs, they lose income, they lose opportunities, which is a much bigger issue than a trade agreement," said Wnendt.

"We need to take the concerns of people seriously and it needs to be transparent."