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EU-Canada free trade deal threatened by French-speaking Belgian region

Bruno Fahy, Belga, AFP | Paul Magnette, premier of Belgium’s Wallonia region, gives a speech during a plenary session of the Walloon parliament in the city of Namur, on October 14, 2016

Pressure has mounted on the Belgian government to save a landmark EU-Canada free trade agreement after the small French-speaking region of Wallonia essentially torpedoed the deal by voting to reject it.


Supporters of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) say the deal will boost the European Union economy by €12 billion ($13.4 billion) a year and create jobs. But opponents worry that it threatens job security and social welfare.

Belgium’s Prime Minister Charles Michel was left scrambling to find a solution after Wallonia’s parliament voted overwhelmingly to reject the agreement on Friday, but officials stressed that it was local governments rather than parliaments that would have the final say. Under Belgium’s complex political system, the government cannot approve the deal without support from assemblies representing the country’s three regions and three linguistic communities.

"I will not give powers to the federal government and Belgium will not sign CETA on October 18," Paul Magnette, the Socialist head of Wallonia’s government, declared on Friday. "I do not intend this as a burial but as a demand to reopen negotiations."

The move has threatened to derail CETA, which is backed by Canada and all 28 EU national governments, including Belgium’s. The deal is due to be voted by European trade ministers on Tuesday, who must unanimously approve it before it can be officially signed by EU leaders and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

France also stepped up pressure on its neighbor to the north by inviting Magnette to talks in Paris later on Friday with fellow Socialist, President François Hollande. After the meeting, Magnette hinted he was ready for a solution. “I am a natural optimist and very willing. What we are asking for is very reasonable,” he said.

The Belga news agency reported on Sunday that Wallonia officials had met with the European Commission and members of Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders’s office to discuss the issue.

Magnette fears that CETA will undermine worker’s rights and shift too much power to big corporations. But EU leaders say Europe’s commitment to free world trade is at stake, including further planned deals with Japan and the United States.

The two regions of Wallonia and Brussels are home to 4.5 million people, less than 1 percent of the 507 million European consumers the EU-Canada free trade deal would impact. Even within Belgium, they are outnumbered by Dutch-speaking Flemings, whose representatives have already backed CETA.


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