Top EU lawmaker intervenes to try to save Canada trade pact

BRUSSELS – The Belgian region of Wallonia affirmed Saturday it still stands in the way of a trade deal between the 28-nation European Union and Canada, but its leader and a top EU lawmaker were cautiously optimistic that the standoff could be resolved within days.

“I think it’s worth taking a little more time,” Walloon leader Paul Magnette after European Parliament President Martin Schulz waded into the dispute to try to salvage the pact.

Politicians in Wallonia, which is smaller than New Jersey, argue that the proposed deal would undermine labour, environment and consumer standards and allow multinationals to crush local companies. They have vowed to block a pact that the world’s biggest trading bloc and Canada want to sign Thursday.

Magnette said Wallonia still saw “some small difficulties.” He said a better deal would bolster EU standards and set a strong precedent for future trade talks between Europe and its trading partners.

Canada’s International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland walked away from the talks Friday on the verge of tears, saying that the EU appeared incapable of signing the deal. The pact was produced two years ago but must be endorsed unanimously.

After Saturday’s separate talks with Freeland and Magnette, Schulz said he was hopeful that 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,” Schulz told reporters.

Freeland said “the ball is in Europe’s court and it’s time for Europe to finish doing its job.” She said she was heading back to Canada but hoped to return with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to sign the CETA accord, short for Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement.

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.

A similar free trade agreement being negotiated between the EU and the United States is facing far more opposition than the Canada pact. Progress on the American deal appears unlikely until a new U.S. president takes office in January.