Freeland departs Belgium after one more Canada-EU free trade deal meeting

OTTAWA – International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland was returning to Canada Saturday but not before she left her European counterparts with one more warning to do what it takes to save the Canada-EU free trade deal.

“We have finished negotiating a very good agreement, and Canada is ready to sign this agreement,” Freeland told reporters Saturday morning in Brussels standing next to European Parliament President Martin Schulz.

“Now the ball is in Europe’s court, and it’s time for Europe to finish doing its job.”

The Belgian region of Wallonia affirmed Saturday that it still stands in the way of the accord between Canada and the 28-nation European Union, but its president, Paul Magnette, and Schulz were both cautiously optimistic the standoff could be resolved within days.

Freeland said she was heading back to Canada, but hoped to return with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to sign the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement — known as CETA — on Thursday at the long-planned Canada-EU summit.

While Freeland appeared to be sounding more hopeful about the future of the trade deal after her Saturday meeting with Schulz in Brussels, senior government officials said she was still standing by her strong words of the previous day when she stormed out a European Commission meeting.

Freeland walked away from the talks on the verge of tears, saying the EU appeared incapable of signing the deal, and that she was going home.

On Saturday, Freeland and Schulz addressed reporters after the meeting, but didn’t take questions.

A weary-looking Freeland nodded as Schulz said he was optimistic the EU would be able to solve its internal problems. At one point, Freeland appeared to stifle a sigh.

“The problems on the table are European problems,” Schulz said. “I checked once more the position of the Canadian government and I’m very optimistic that we can solve the problems that we have within the European Union.”

After Saturday’s separate talks with Freeland and Magnette, Schulz said he was hopeful a compromise could be found to clear the way for Thursday’s planned EU-Canada summit.

“To my eyes, there is no problem we cannot resolve,” he told reporters.

For his part, Magnette said, “I think it’s worth taking a little more time.”

Politicians in Wallonia argue the proposed deal would undermine labour, environment and consumer standards and allow multinationals to crush local companies.

But anti-trade and civil society groups say Magnette is taking up their cause to block the deal.

The Council of Canadians, an organization that adamantly opposes liberalized trade, has said Magnette isn’t just speaking for the Walloons; he’s speaking for groups such as theirs over what they see as a flawed approach to solving disputes between investors and states.

EU leaders have warned that failure to clinch the deal with Canada could ruin the bloc’s credibility as a trade partner and make it more difficult to strike such agreements with the United States, Japan and other allies.