Freeland ‘still hopeful’ on Canada-EU trade; says ‘ball is in Europe’s court’

OTTAWA – International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland came out swinging against her domestic political opponents Monday as she ratcheted up pressure on European lawmakers to twist the arm of the lone Belgian holdout blocking their free trade deal.

Freeland held firm to the government’s political deadline of Thursday, when Canada and the European Union are scheduled to attend a summit in Brussels and formally sign the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, or CETA.

Freeland repeatedly brushed aside the question when asked whether the government would be willing to sign the deal after Thursday.

“Canada’s job is done,” she said. “Canada is ready to sign CETA, but the ball is in Europe’s court.”

Opposition from the Belgian region of Wallonia, with a population of just 3.5 million, could kill a deal between more than 500 million EU citizens and 35 million Canadians. Belgium’s constitution gives each of its regions a veto over the actions of its national government.

Freeland shrugged off the Conservatives, who assailed her for walking out Friday on the talks taking place in Brussels, and for pointedly criticizing the EU’s ability to land a trade deal during an emotional and personal scrum with reporters afterward.

“This was a tough move by Canada, but it was a decision taken carefully, and upon reflection, it was the right and necessary thing to do,” she said.

“To the Conservatives who’ve criticized walking away, they know it was the right move.”

Freeland later brushed back more Conservative attacks in the House of Commons, including from trade critic Gerry Ritz who said the deal was “gift-wrapped and left on the doorstep for the Liberals.” He accused Freeland of having a “meltdown” last week in Belgium and even suggested she was in need of “adult supervision.”

But Freeland made no apologies.

“As for my visible emotion, I do take this deal very personally. I am all in for Canada when I am at the negotiating table,” she said. “I was disappointed and sad but also tough and strong. I think those are the qualities that Canadians expect in their minister.”

The EU said Monday that it hasn’t yet given up on the Thursday summit in Brussels. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke by telephone earlier in the day with EU President Donald Tusk, who said “there’s yet time” to find a way to convince the Belgian region to back the deal.

“We think Thursday’s summit still possible,” Tusk said in a Twitter message. “We encourage all parties to find a solution.”

Trudeau’s office had no comment as of Monday evening about future travel plans.

Freeland said she was encouraged by Tusk’s optimism. “CETA isn’t dead,” she said. “We wish them well, and we hope that they can get there.”

The EU’s executive commission called for patience in an attempt to save the free trade deal and had already dismissed a Monday night deadline as counterproductive.

Wallonian President Paul Magnette insisted he would agree to nothing under the threat of an ultimatum but remained open to further talks.

“Each time they put forward such an ultimatum it makes a serene discussion and a democratic debate impossible,” he said. “I indicated that other parallel political contacts are still going on and that we could give counter proposals.”

The EU Commission, which has negotiated the deal on behalf of the 28 nations, insisted that this week’s summit was not the final deadline.

“The Commission traditionally does not set deadlines or ultimatums,” said EU Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas.

— With files from The Associated Press