Canadian delegation stays put Wednesday as Canada-EU trade pact still in limbo

OTTAWA – A spokesman for the minister of international trade says a Canadian delegation would not be heading off to Europe on Wednesday to sign what would be a landmark trade deal with the European Union.

But Alex Lawrence, the spokesman, says in a release that Canada is ready to sign the Canada-EU trade deal whenever Europe is ready.

The release late Wednesday came shortly after news from Europe that Belgium had failed to make decisive headway to lift a crucial veto of the trade deal by one of its regions, Wallonia.

The trade deal _ known as the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, or CETA — was to be signed Thursday by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at a special summit in Brussels with EU leaders.

But Trudeau himself suggested earlier Wednesday that he’s prepared to wait out a longer timeline.

“We are confident that in the coming days we will see a positive outcome for this historic deal,” the prime minister told the Commons during question period.

The Associated Press reported from Brussels that recalcitrant Francophone leaders insisted late Wednesday they would need more time to study and approve the latest compromise texts following talks with the Belgian national government, which desperately wants to sign the trans-Atlantic deal.

The 28-nation EU can only sign the agreement if it has unanimity among its 28 member states and Belgium can only approve it is all its regional executives back it.

But Wallonia leader Paul Magnette said late Wednesday that his region would not be able to approve the deal in the coming hours, making it ever more unlikely the full signing ceremony with Trudeau could be held on Thursday.

“We regret it but it won’t be possible to have the summit tomorrow, but nothing is impossible,” he said, leaving little space for approval. Earlier he had said that an EU-Canada summit would come “one day, but not tomorrow!”

It showed that despite the likelihood of missing the Thursday deadline, the talks with Wallonia were heading toward a compromise which would allow the signature at a later stage.

Magnette, the Wallonia leader, said that some details still need to be clarified, notably in the agriculture sector where he wants his farmers better protected.

If the regional leaders agree, the adjustments to assuage Wallonia would have to be vetted by the 27 other nations and then likely still have to go back to the regional francophone legislatures for approval. It makes the deadline for signature next to impossible.

If not Thursday, the summit could be postponed for later in the year, but the failure would be an embarrassment for the EU, the world’s biggest trading bloc which wants to project itself as a dependable global partner.

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.

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.

–With files from The Associated Press