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Belgian region refuses to back down over EU-Canada trade deal

© AFP | Andre Antoine, chairman of the Belgium's French-speaking region of Wallonia parliament, gives a speech during a plenary session of the Walloon parliament in Namur, on October 14, 2016.

Text by Tony TODD

Latest update : 2016-10-19

The day before EU leaders are due to meet in Brussels, the small French-speaking Wallonia region of Belgium said there was "no chance" it would back down on its opposition to a landmark Canada-EU trade treaty that was due to be signed this week.

Nearly all EU governments – including Belgium’s – say they are ready to approve the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) that would lift 98% of the tariffs between the EU and Canada.

EU trade ministers had been due to approve CETA on Tuesday, ahead of it being signed at an EU-Canada summit, attended by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, on October 27.They have now set a deadline for Friday for the deal to be approved. 

However, Belgium’s political structure means it cannot accept without backing from all five sub-federal administrations representing its regions and linguistic communities, including Wallonia.

On Wednesday, Belgium's pro-CETA Foreign Minister Didier Reynders said his EU counterparts "couldn't believe" the resistance by the Walloons.

"There is now an agreement of 27 countries, and we can practically say 27 and a half countries since the federal government and the Flemish government want to move forward," he told reporters.

Reynders (whose Twitter account was hacked Tuesday to post the message: "Hey Canada, F*** you!") added that he was pushing for a solution by the time EU leaders meet in Brussels on Thursday and Friday. 

Asked if this was likely, André Antoine, president of Wallonia’s regional parliament, told FRANCE 24 there was “no chance at all”.

“It is a complex subject and we have serious objections to it,” he said. “There is absolutely no way that we will come to an agreement with the federal government that quickly.”

A test model for the TAFTA deal

Except for a few sensitive agricultural products, CETA abolishes virtually all tariffs between Canada and the EU.

Its backers say the deal will boost trade in goods and services between Europe and Canada by more than 20 percent, and total EU GDP by about €12 billion per year.

But it is opposed by a wide array of groups, who say it is a test model to push through the even more controversial EU-US “TAFTA” trade deal, which is still being negotiated, mostly behind closed doors.

“We’ve studied the text of this deal very closely,” Antoine told FRANCE 24. “We believe that the boost to Europe will be much smaller than that enjoyed by Canada, while there is a serious risk of job losses in regions like ours.”

Failure to strike a deal with such a like-minded country would call into question the EU’s ability to make other deals. It also gives a pointer to the hurdles Britain might face in seeking a new trade relationship with the EU after it leaves.

‘Elected officials, not multinationals, must have last word’

With support from EU governments and the European Parliament, CETA could come into force provisionally next year, removing tariffs on 98% of goods while leaving out the most contentious aspect of the deal – an arbitration court to protect foreign companies’ investments – to come into force at a later date.

Antoine told FRANCE 24 that the court - which would come into being only after the pact is ratified by all national parliaments - would allow big business to dictate government policy by threatening legal action.

“We recognize the importance of trade deals, but we will insist on our legitimacy as a decision-making body,” said Antoine.

“We cannot just rubber-stamp deals that have been proposed by Europe and then taken over by the multinationals who stand to benefit most,” he added. “It must be elected officials, and not multinationals, who have the final word.”

Greenpeace, which says CETA is a Trojan Horse for TAFTA, said in a statement the EU was pushing for an agreement that had little support among Europeans, and that the "disagreements between ministers show how out of touch most of them are with their citizens".

Date created : 2016-10-19

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