Belgian region's rejection imperils EU-Canada trade deal

A Belgian region is opposing a wide-ranging trade deal between the European Union and Canada, threatening the agreement which is supposed to be signed in two weeks.

French-speaking Wallonia fears deal would over-expose some sectors to cheap imports

Minister President of Wallonia Paul Magnette, left, and Vice-Minister-President Jean-Claude Marcourt attend a debate on the planned Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement at the Walloon regional parliament in Belgium, on Friday. (Francois Lenoir/Reuters)

A Belgian region on Friday rejected a wide-ranging trade deal between the European Union and Canada, threatening the agreement which is supposed to be signed in two weeks and requires unanimous approval.

Paul Magnette, the leader of the region of Wallonia, said he would "not give the full powers to the federal government" to back the deal at an EU meeting Tuesday, where the 28 member states have to decide on full approval of the agreement.

Wallonia, a francophone region of 3.5 million in the south of Belgium, fears the deal with Canada will leave the farming and industrial sectors too exposed to cheaper imports from Canada. Environmental activists and trade unions have all warned such international deals could worsen local standards for food, work and industry.

Magnette said that "the guarantees are insufficient" and said labour, environmental and legal standards needed to be improved before such a deal could be approved. "We have to say `no' so we can negotiate," Magnette said. The regional legislature rejected the deal by a 46-14 margin, with one abstention.

All EU nations need to back it, and under Belgium's byzantine constitutional rules to appease different linguistic blocs, one region can effectively veto such a deal for the whole country.

"I will not give the full powers to the federal government and Belgium will not sign CETA on the 18th of October," Magnette said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is scheduled to sign the CETA deal at an EU-Canada summit in Brussels on Oct. 27. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Overwhelming majority

The agreement has already been backed by an overwhelming majority of the 28 member nations of the EU, a bloc of half a billion people. It is scheduled to be officially signed at an EU-Canada summit in Brussels with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Oct. 27, seven years after talks started.

The Belgian national government and the dominant Dutch-speaking region of Flanders back the deal.

"We are certainly brave," said Marie-Dominique Simonet of the Walloon Christian Democrat CdH party.

The Liberal MR party, which is also represented in the national government, was scathing. "You are taking Belgium and Europe hostage," said Virginie Defrang-Firket in the legislature. "Nobody will trust us anymore," she said.

Thousands demonstrate against the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the EU-Canada CETA pact in Brussels on Sept. 20. (Eric Vidal/Reuters)

The EU says the CETA deal with Canada will improve trade, create jobs, and remove just about all tariffs and custom duties while at the same time guaranteeing European standards on anything from food and health quality to labour rights.

For many, the deal is only a prelude to an even bigger free trade agreement, called TTIP, that is being negotiated with the United States, and which has given rise already to massive protests in several member states, including Belgium — and Wallonia.

Talks are planned ahead of Tuesday to see to whether Wallonia might withdraw its rejection.