, Brussels, Belgium, Oct 24 – A small Belgian region refused Monday to bow to growing pressure to back a key trade deal with Canada, heightening tensions within Belgium and Europe as well as with historic allies in North America.
Riding a rising wave of Western populist distrust of international trade deals, French-speaking Wallonia’s parliament stuck to its refusal to heed a late Monday EU deadline to support the pact.
Its opposition prevents the federal Belgian government from signing the accord, which needs to be backed by all 28 European Union member states.
“It won’t be possible to respect this ultimatum,” Wallonia parliament head Andre Antoine told RTL radio, referring to a late-Monday deadline set by EU president Donald Tusk for the country to say whether it could support the pact.
Paul Magnette, the leader of the Wallonia region, rejected the “ultimatum” as “incompatible” with democratic practice when it was disclosed on Sunday.
The stand-off means EU leaders may have to cancel a summit they had scheduled for Thursday in Brussels with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to sign the deal.
The pact, known as the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), would link the EU market of 500 million people, the world’s biggest, with the tenth largest global economy.
A European source, who asked not to be named, said Tusk is due to speak later Monday to Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel to see whether he has made enough progress to allow Trudeau’s visit to go ahead.
– ‘Solid legal basis’ –
Tusk is also due to speak to European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker before then briefing Trudeau himself.
The source did not say exactly what time a decision had to be made, nor did Tusk’s office formally announce a deadline.
Antoine said it was important to get the deal right as it could pave the way for future trade pacts with economic powers such as the United States and China.
“We must therefore have a solid legal basis,” he said.
Wallonia leaders say more time is needed to study a draft deal which Antoine said is massively complex and covers “300 pages of the treaty, 1,300 pages of appendices.”
Critics especially fault terms supposed to protect international investors which, they say, could allow them to force governments to change laws against the wish of the people.
CETA is opposed by anti-globalisation groups who say it is a test model to push through an even more controversial EU-US trade deal called TTIP, talks on which have also stalled.
Wallonia, a region of 3.5 million people, has support around Europe and from non-government organisations like Greenpeace, which fears the deal will reward “corporate greed” at the expense of hard-won EU health and environmental standards.
Apart from sowing tensions with the European Council and the European Commission which strongly support the deal, Wallonia’s position highlights long-standing divisions between the northern and wealthier Flemish-speaking region of Flanders, which backs CETA and sees its southern, French-speaking left-leaning compatriots as wasteful spendthrifts.
Politicians from Wallonia and Flanders will come face-to-face later Monday to discuss the disputed deal for the first time during a meeting of the country’s regions called by Michel’s government.
Canada has made no secret of its irritation with Belgium and the EU.
Chrystia Freeland, the Canadian trade minister, appeared on the verge of tears Friday after walking out of negotiations with Wallonia leader Magnette and blasted the EU as “incapable” of signing international agreements.
The botched negotiations over the deal strike a further blow to a Europe in turmoil following Britain’s shock Brexit vote in June, sharp divisions over the migration crisis and opposition to austerity medicine imposed on Greece and other debt-hit EU countries.