Belgian region rejects deadline to sign EU-Canada deal

BRUSSELS – The head of Belgium’s small Wallonia region is rejecting a Friday deadline to sign up to a huge trade deal between Canada and the European Union, demanding a full renegotiation that could bring the whole transatlantic agreement down.

Wallonia President Paul Magnette said Wednesday that “we cannot sign by Friday,” when a two-day summit of EU government leaders is to end. It was set as a target day to get the last of the 28 EU nations on board.

Belgium can only back the deal if its regions, including Wallonia, approve it. Without unanimity among EU nations, the deal will collapse.

Magnette told TV network RTBF that despite progress over the past few days “it is insufficient. And you cannot say now: ‘you have 3 days to accept.”

His statement further clouds the fate of the so-called Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA). Wallonia — a francophone southern region in Belgium — has expressed concerns the deal could erode labour, environmental and consumer regulations.

Canadian European trade envoy Pierre Pettigrew told the Montreal Board of Trade on Tuesday that he remains hopeful the agreement will be approved later this week, despite snags that have stalled a critical vote on the deal.

Pettigrew — who was dispatched to meet with Magnette last week — said Canada has done everything it could to address any concerns within the EU, and now the ball is in its court.

“We have worked very hard in the last few months to bring reassurances that we in Canada share those same progressive views,” Pettigrew said.

EU nations were scheduled to vote on the deal Tuesday, but that was delayed after Magnette raised objections, saying he needs a few more days.

Pettigrew said the vote could happen as early as Thursday, when EU leaders kick off a two-day summit.

Former prime minister Brian Mulroney, who is no stranger to trade deals given his role as one of the architects of NAFTA, appeared unfazed by the dispute.

“Every once in a while you run into a hiccup in these things,” said Mulroney, who also spoke before the Montreal Board of Trade. “This is a hiccup, but I don’t think it’s going to derail such an important negotiation.”

International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland said Canada has made significant changes to the deal and remains “cautiously optimistic” that it will receive European approval.

“I am both hopeful and I also hope that Europe and Europeans can come together to make this decision, which is the right one for Canada and for Europe,” she said in Ottawa.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is scheduled to fly to Brussels next week to sign the agreement should it be unanimously approved by the EU.

— With files from The Associated Press