Belgium stretches talks on EU-Canada deal into eve of summit

BRUSSELS – Belgium is stretching talks to convince its region of Wallonia to give the necessary backing to a trade deal between the European Union and Canada into the eve of a summit to sign the landmark agreement.

The diplomatic cliffhanger deciding whether Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will be coming to Brussels for a celebratory summit now depends on last-ditch talks resuming early Wednesday.

Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders said after discussions that stretched late into Tuesday evening that the national and regional governments “worked very well” to get closer to a compromise.

Both sides hoped to find enough common goodwill to be able to put a new text to the 27 other EU nations that would succeed in pushing through a deal seven years in the making, Reynders said.

The trans-Atlantic trade deal needs unanimity among all 28 EU nations, but Belgium is withholding its signature because it also needs all of its regions to back it. Wallonia so far has resolutely refused to do so.

With Thursday’s EU-Canada summit drawing close, the pressure on Wallonia is increasing by the day. The region’s leader, Paul Magnette, has refused to cave in to ultimatums. So far, three deadlines for Wallonia to sign on to the deal have come and gone over the past 10 days.

“We feel that they are starting to listen to us and we continue to negotiate,” Magnette said on Tuesday night. “I didn’t say we progressed, and I didn’t say we are paralyzed either.”

If there is no quick agreement from Wallonia, the EU-Canada summit could still be scrapped.

Politicians in Wallonia, which has a population of 3.6 million compared to over 500 million for the whole EU, argue that the proposed accord would undermine labour, environment and consumer standards.

Proponents say it would yield billions in added trade through customs and tariff cuts and other measures to lower barriers to commerce. At the same time, the EU says it will keep in place the region’s strong safeguards on social, environmental and labour issues.

Magnette said a key hurdle was the issue of “private arbitration” in which multinationals can legally challenge governments on policies.

He said Wallonia’s insistence on a better deal would bolster EU standards and set a strong precedent for other trade talks between Europe and trading partners like the United States or Japan.